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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?

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

Like as a Discourse Particle

The final use of like in D’Arcy’s classification is as a discourse particle. I used like this way when I said, “there’s, like, one language peeve that I’ve never thought to write about.” I put it right before the noun phrase one language peeve, but it can also go before verb phrases, adjective phrases, and other kinds of phrases, although D’Arcy only focused on these three kinds. She finds that like as a discourse particle has also been steadily increasing in use for the last 60 years, just as discourse-marker like has been doing. 

Now personally, I didn’t see much difference between like at the beginning of a sentence, which D’Arcy calls a discourse marker, and like before smaller phrases, which she calls a discourse particle. Furthermore, the fact that they’ve both been increasing in usage at about the same rate suggests to me that they’re the same word. However, there are some differences. For one, you can’t easily replace the discourse particle like with a word like well. In my sample sentence, it would sound like this: there’s well one language peeve that I’ve never thought to write about. You could kind of make it work if you used just the right intonation, but it’s nowhere near as natural-sounding as Well, I’ve been doing this podcast for eight years. 

D’Arcy also shows another way that discourse-marker like is different from discourse-particle like: women are more likely than men to use like as a discourse marker, whereas men are more likely than women to use like as a discourse particle. 

Do Women Use Like More Than Men?

This brings us to another popular perception that D’Arcy challenges: That women use like much more than men. Her finding is that the answer depends on which vernacular like you’re talking about. For discourse-marker like, yes. For discourse-particle like, no. For like as an approximating adverb, men and women are equally likely to use it. And for quotative like, women are more likely than men to use it—at least in the speaker population that D’Arcy sampled. 

So some of the popular perceptions about vernacular like are false, but some are true. Specifically, quotative like is as recent as people thought it was, and it may well have originated with Valley Girls. Furthermore, D’Arcy speculates that the Valley Girl stereotype may have increased the usage not only of quotative like, but also of the other vernacular uses, because of ordinary speakers’ failure to notice the differences between the different functions. 

In any case, all this doesn’t mean these various uses of like are good, or bad. In speech, occasionally using these versions of like can be a good thing. Studies have shown that speech that sounds too careful, without any stumbles, pauses, or conversation fillers such as like, um, and you know, can sound awkward, dogmatic, and unfriendly. On the other hand, of course you shouldn’t overdo it, using like in every sentence as I did in the opening of this section. Furthermore, all these uses of like are still considered informal, so if you’re writing or speaking in a formal register, don’t use them.

Sources

D’Arcy, Alexandra. 2007. “Like and language ideology: Disentangling fact from fiction.” American Speech. Volume 82, Number 4: 386-419 doi: 10.1215/00031283-2007-025 http://americanspeech.dukejournals.org/content/82/4/386.abstract

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com.

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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.