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

Quotative Like Can Mean Something Different From Think or Said

A lot has been written about quotative like since it was first noted in the journal American Speech in 1982. Quotative like has a more general meaning than the verbs say or think, because it can cover both saying and thinking. If you say, Squiggly was like, “I’m outta here,” that doesn’t necessarily mean Squiggly said it; it could mean that his behavior suggested that he wanted to leave. Furthermore, quotative like even has the power to incorporate non-linguistic gestures into the grammar of a sentence. Listen; I’ll do it now: I was like [shrug]. It works better if you can see me. Right after I said, “I was like,” I shrugged. 

Quotative Like Is Relatively New

Often, when some new word or usage becomes widespread enough to be noticed, there’s a perception that it only started recently, but when linguists or lexicographers investigate, it usually turns out to be much older than people thought. However, quotative like is an exception. As D’Arcy found in her study, it really does seem to have begun in the 1980s. She found that speakers who would have been teenagers in the 1980s used quotative like significantly more than older speakers, who hardly used it at all. 

Furthermore, it caught on much faster than the other vernacular uses of like, so that the teenagers of the 1990s and later use quotative like in about half the situations where they could use it or say or think

Valley Girls Really Did Coin the Quotative Like

Another popular perception about quotative like is that it originated with the stereotyped, “Ohmuhgod!” persona of the California Valley Girl of the 1980s. Typically, when linguists investigate neat and tidy origins like this, they turn out to be false, but once again, quotative like is the exception. D’Arcy’s research indicates that they may indeed have been the source of quotative like, and in any case, it’s certainly an Americanism.

The Approximate Adverb Like

However, Valley Girls weren’t the source of the other three vernacular uses of like, which have longer histories, and occur in dialects of English around the world. The second one that D’Arcy discusses is what she calls the approximative adverb like. I used it when I said, “I’ve been doing this podcast for, like, eight years now.” The like here modifies eight years, and has pretty much the same function as the word about or the phrase more or less. She finds that this use of like was rare 75 years ago, but has increased a lot since then, and in the early 1970s, it passed about, which is on its way down.

Like as a Discourse Marker

The third vernacular use of like in D’Arcy’s analysis is as a discourse marker—in other words, at the beginning of a sentence, where a word such as well or so might go. Like is used as a discourse marker in Like, I’ve been doing this podcast for eight years, and this sentence also sounds natural if I replace like with well: Well, I’ve been doing this podcast for eight years.

This use of like was already well-associated with the Beat-generation writers and musicians of the 1940s and 1950s, but D’Arcy also found examples of it from speakers in the United Kingdom who would have been using it early in the 20th century. But although like as a discourse marker isn’t as recent as you might have thought, D’Arcy still finds that it has been steadily increasing for the last 60 years or so. 


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 find him at literalminded.wordpress.com.