Why Do People Say "Like" So Much?

Some people get annoyed when they hear others saying like too much, but did you know there are actually four different ways people use like in that Valley Girl way?

Neal Whitman, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #445

Valley Girls Say Like.


Like, I’ve been doing this podcast for, like, eight years now, but there’s, like, one language peeve that I’ve never thought to write about, so when a listener asked me about it, I was, like, “I can’t believe we’ve never covered this before!” 

Not All Likes are Alike

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the complaint is about the overuse of the word like. However, before we can talk about that, we need to draw a few distinctions, because not all likes are alike. For example, if I were to say, “I don’t like this hat; it makes me look like a mushroom,” even the most conservative speakers would have no problem with like as a verb in I don’t like this hat, or like as an adjective in look like a mushroom. 

The verb like and the adjective like are separate words. They have different meanings and are used in different places in a sentence. And although they’re homonyms these days, they even used to sound different. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb like comes from the Old English lician (“lick-ee-on”), while the adjective like comes from the Old English līch (“leekh,” where “kh” is the sound you get when you try to make a K, but don’t let your tongue quite touch the roof of your mouth. To an English-only speaker, it will sound like a labored H sound.)

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The newer uses of like have different meanings, too, and one linguist argues that they’re actually four separate words, in the same way that like the verb and like the adjective are separate words. 

Alexandra D’Arcy of the University of Victoria in British Columbia wrote her dissertation on what she calls the vernacular functions of like, and has published a number of papers on them. Here, I’ll summarize some of her points from a 2007 article in American Speech.

The Quotative Like

The first function D’Arcy lists is sometimes called “quotative like,” and it always occurs with a form of the verb be. I said it in my example sentence when I said, “I was like, ‘I can’t believe we’ve never covered this before!’” 


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.