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How 'Like' Can Be Both Annoying and Useful

Parents and teachers complain about kids who use "like" too much, but it's more complicated than you may imagine.

By
Ben Yagoda, Writing for
9-minute read
Episode #792
The Quick And Dirty

You might not like it, but "He was like, 'I hate kale," is different from "He said, 'I hate kale.'"

Recently on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” an American student at Duke University’s campus in China described a class exercise about what the country would be like in twenty years. Referring to some Chinese students in the course, she said, “They wore like Chinese military garb to the presentation. And they had like the whole banner that said, ‘The 10th anniversary of Taiwan's return to China.’ And that was like a big deal for the Taiwanese students. They were like extremely upset over it.”

In fact, the student used the word “like" four times in a 44-word statement. And she used it in particular, recognizable ways that weren’t traditional. By “traditional” I mean “like” as a verb (“Jim likes Mary”), a preposition (“Sally looks like Betty” and “he reminds me of artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer”), a noun (“cookies, donuts, and the like” and “my post got 25 likes”), a suffix (“he has many mentor-like qualities”), a comparative complementizer (“It felt like we were in outer space”), or even a conjunction, which was controversial in the 1950s but is now fairly widely accepted (“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”).

To call the student’s “like”s “controversial” would be to overstate their reputation, by a lot. In 1982, Frank and Moon Unit Zappa released the song “Valley Girl,” which contained passages like,

Like, oh my god!

Like, totally!

Encino is, like, so bitchin'

There's, like, the Galleria

And, like

All these, like, really great shoe stores

Roughly since then, “like” has been Exhibit A when older people criticize the way young people talk, generating more dislike than even uptalk, vocal fry, and sentence-starting “so.” 

'Like' has been Exhibit A when older people criticize the way young people talk.

Complaints are most frequently heard from members of two groups. 

First, parents, such as the singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright, who in “Cobwebs” (1995) calls the word “an assault to my mind's ear” and sings, “when I hear it/I can't stand it/Especially coming out of the mouths of one of my own kids.” 

The second group is college professors, one of whom wrote in the "Chronicle of Higher Education" some years ago that of the roughly million words he reckoned the English language to comprise, “only one do I hold in contempt. That word is ‘like’—not the tepid expression of mild appreciation but the parasitic form that now bleeds the mother tongue, marks the user as a dunce, and, were it truly understood, scandalizes our schools.”

Dislike of 'like' is widely held.

Studies have suggested that a dislike of, if not outright “contempt” for, non-traditional “like” is widely held. One experiment found that subjects perceived heavy “like” users as less intelligent (but more attractive, cheerful and friendly) than people who abstained from the word. And in another study, job interviewers’ ratings revealed that “like” use negatively affected hireability. 

That being the case, is it a professors’ (or parents’) duty to intervene when their students (or their children) overuse “like”? Maybe not going so far as the professor who wrote the 2012 “Chronicle” article, Ted Gup, who reported writing the word down on the back of a legal pad in six-inch-high capital letters, and holding up the sign every time a student said it. But doing an intervention of some kind?

Possibly the person on earth best qualified to answer that question is the scholar from whom I learned about the studies mentioned two paragraphs above, Alexandra D’Arcy, associate professor of linguistics at the University of Victoria and the author of the 2017 book “Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context: Eight Hundred Years of LIKE," a comprehensive study of the non-traditional “like." In an interview, D’Arcy said that when her students use the word in the classroom, “I don't respond at all. I don't say anything.”

She had more to say on the subject, but before getting to that, it would make sense to pass along some of her findings, which run counter to the conventional wisdom about the non-traditional “like” in two ways.

Even 'nontraditional' uses of 'like' have very clear functions in the language.

First, D’Arcy refutes the general perception that it’s merely, as Wainwright puts it, “an audible pause … that don’t mean a thing.” In fact, recordings show speakers rarely pause before or after the word, as people do with other particles, such as “um” and “you know.” And, as she said in the interview, “There are multiple ‘likes’ that are out there. Some annoy us more than others, but they all have very clear functions in the language.” Using a wide variety of examples, she describes four distinct non-traditional “likes,” all of them arguably useful and even elegant. 

'Like' can show that you mean an approximate amount of something such as time or money.

One is as an adverb of approximation. That’s the way Donald Trump employed it when speaking about his visit with the Queen of England last August: “It was supposed to last 15 minutes but it lasted like an hour.” And how Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, used it in early June: “The problem with California is that you could spend like hundreds of millions of dollars and it will feel like you spent five pennies.”

A second kind of use applies approximation not just to nouns and noun phrases indicating things like quantity and time, as “about” does, but to adjectives and verbs and just about anything. Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez recently said this about a documentary in which she was featured: “You know, I’m like ugly crying on the screen.” She could have said, “I’m ugly,” but it wouldn’t have been the same thing.

'Like' can draw attention to the words that come after it.

The third function suggests a more general approximation, as well as other meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary has a nice definition: “Used conversationally to qualify a preceding (or in later use also following) statement, suggesting that the statement is approximate, or signifying a degree of uncertainty on the part of the speaker as to whether an expression is pertinent or acceptable: ‘as it were’, ‘so to speak’, ‘in a manner of speaking’.” And: “Used as a marker, intensifier, or filler in conversation or spoken discourse to introduce or focus attention on a following statement or question.”

That applies to the Duke University student’s uses of “like,” and to how Terry Gross recently used the word on her NPR show, “Fresh Air": “The college years coincide with the years that some mood disorders start to express themselves or express themselves more fully. And so like that can be a very negative interaction.”

'Like' can show attribution without using the precision of an exact quote.

Finally, combined with “to be,” “like” is a verb of attribution. The Duke student on NPR reported that a professor asked a class what is the first thing they think of when they hear America? “And then one Chinese student was like, ‘A green card.’” To appreciate the usefulness here, consider the logical alternative verb: “said.” The problem is that “said” implies word-for-word accuracy, and no one, in conversation, is purporting to present that. The only other option would be “He said something to the effect of, ‘A green card…’”—which would get some seriously funny looks.

These uses of 'like' aren't new.

The other idea D’Arcy persuasively counters is that the non-traditional “like” is a new thing. People my age and older remember its association with the beatniks of the 1950s and ‘60s. The OED cites a 1950 quote from Lawrence Rivers—“Like how much can you lay on me?”—and this from Jack Kerouac’s 1957 “On the Road”: “… all hung up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears.”  

Notice was taken in the culture at large. In his 1960 book, “Growing Up Absurd,” Paul Goodman wrote that

“… a more general withdrawal, from experiencing altogether, is expressed by the omnicapable word ‘like.’ E.g., “Like I’m sleepy,” meaning ‘If I experienced anything, it would be feeling sleepy.’ ‘Like if I go to like New York, I’ll look you up,’ indicating that in this definite and friendly promise, there is no felt purpose in that trip or any trip. Technically, ‘like’ is here a particle expressing a tonality or attitude of utterance.” He compared it to the Greek terms for “verily” and “now look.”

In the sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” (which ran from 1959 to 1964), the word was the most notable component of the vocabulary of the beatnik sidekick Maynard G. Krebs. For example, this exchange followed an apology to Maynard by pompous Professor Pomfritt:

Maynard G. Krebs: You're like forgiven.

Prof. Pomfritt: Like thank you.

Maynard: Like you're welcome.

Prof. Pomfritt: Can you answer the question?

Maynard: Like no.

Prof. Pomfritt: Like that's what I figured!

But D’Arcy takes it way, way farther back, with an impressive battery of quotations from databases of spoken and written English. For example, this one from 1887: “I kept all the mortgage books and was secretary for like a hundred and fifteen dollars a month.”

And this one from 1875: “You’d never believe Pig Route. Like, you’d need to see the road to believe it.” 

And finally this one from 1925: “They were just like sitting, waiting to die.”

See, it’s not as new as you thought!

Except the 'quotative like'— that's new.

The one non-traditional “like” that appears to be legitimately new though is the quotative “like.” The OED’s first citation is from “Valley Girl”: “She's like Oh my God.”

D’Arcy doesn’t emphasize this, but I’ll counter a third misapprehension: that the non-traditional “like” is exclusively the province of the young. Donald Trump was born in 1946, Terry Gross in 1951, and Faiz Shakir in 1979. The correspondent on the NPR segment in which the Duke student was featured, Steve Inskeep (born in 1968) said, in describing the campus, “There’s even like a little marshland.”

I am in my 60s, and I hear myself and my friends use “like” this way, fruitfully. I don’t know Ted Gup or Loudon Wainwright, but I wonder if at this point they do as well. It brings to mind “Baron’s Law of Usage,” formulated by Dennis Baron, a grammarian at the University of Illinois: “Whatever feature you complain about, it's certain that you will one day use it yourself.”

All that being said, it can indeed sound like a tic, and it can indeed reflect negatively on a speaker. But Ted Gup’s rap-their-knuckles approach just doesn’t seem like the way to go. I retired from teaching not too long ago, but I feel pretty confident if I had tried this sort of thing the classroom—or even borrowed Prof. Pomfritt’s subtle sarcastic approach—my students, reluctant to talk in the best of times, would have completely shut up.

These uses of 'like' are best reserved for casual exchanges.

Alexandra D’Arcy, who can fairly be described as a “like” enthusiast, knows there’s a time and place for the word. She’s fortunate that in her linguistics classes, the very idea that there’s a time and place for certain kinds of language is part of the curriculum.

“There are stylistic conventions and norms,” she said. “If what we're trying to do is prepare people for performance in an interview... you wouldn't want them um-ing an ah-ing the whole time. You wouldn't want them saying ‘you know’ and ‘right,’ or ‘eh?’ They all become part of teaching how to present yourself in such a way that you're perceived as professional. Just as you don't want to go into [an] interview with dirty wrinkled clothes.”

“So I do teach about stylistic variation,” she continued. “I often talk about ‘like,’ and I do end up talking about when it would be better to use it. It works when you're with your friends, not in a professional presentation or an interview.”

If I were still teaching, I probably would devote part of a class each semester to such matters and would recommend doing so to colleagues, no matter what their discipline. But here’s the thing. My sense of classes in recent years is that there wasn’t a great deal of “like” use. An informal survey of my erstwhile colleagues at the University of Delaware revealed similar impressions.

That doesn’t surprise D’Arcy.  She said, “I’ve had colleagues say to me, ‘Students in my first-year seminars use “like” all the time. But by the time they're in my fourth-year seminars or my grad classes, I notice they're using it a lot less, so I'm convinced that “like” is going away.’ And my answer is—'It's not that it's going away, it's that your students are maturing and they're figuring out academic culture.’”

The Duke student featured on NPR, significantly, was a freshman. My money says that by the time she’s a senior, her use of “like” in interviews, class discussions, and professional settings will have like disappeared.

This article originally appeared in the "Chronicle of Higher Education" and is included here with permission from the author.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Ben Yagoda, Writing for Grammar Girl

Ben Yagoda is the author of How to Not Write BadAbout Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, and many other books. You can find out more about him at benyagoda.com and on Twitter.

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