The Grammarphobia Blog

Good grammar or good taste?

Q: Why is “like” wrong in the old TV commercial “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”? I asked my English professor and he didn’t have an adequate answer.

A: I suspect that your English professor did have the answer, but he may have wrapped it in too much grammar jargon for you to understand. I’ll have to use some technical terms too, but I’ll try to explain them along the way.

The rule here is that you use a conjunction (a combining word like “and,” “but,” “as,” etc.) to join clauses (“Winston tastes good” and “a cigarette should”). A clause, as you may know, is a group of words with both a subject (“Winston” or “cigarette”) and a verb (“tastes” or “should”).

So what’s wrong with using “like” instead of “as” in front of the clause “a cigarette should”? Well, “like” is a lot of things (an adjective, a preposition, a verb, and so on), but sticklers insist that it can’t be a conjunction.

That’s been the rule for the last couple hundred years, but the ground is shifting. In casual usage, “like” is gaining steadily on “as.” In fact, this “new” usage is actually a return to the past.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says writers have used “like” as a conjunction since Chaucer’s time. It wasn’t until the 19th century that this usage became a no-no.

American Heritage suggests, however, that it would be “prudent” to avoid using “like” before a clause in formal writing despite its long history as a conjunction. A writer who ignores the contemporary stigma against “like,” the dictionary says, “risks being accused of illiteracy or worse.”

Here’s my advice. When you want your English to be above reproach, think of the old cigarette commercial – and do the opposite.

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