Etymology Grammar Usage

A likely story

Q: Most people use “like” instead of “as” these days. In a blog posting a few years ago, you presented the case for using “like” as a conjunction, but then recommended against doing it. Have you changed your mind since then?

A: The use of “like” as a conjunction introducing a clause (“If you knew Susie like I know Susie”) is extremely common in both written and spoken English.

But the prohibition against it is familiar to anyone old enough to have learned grammar in public school—that is, roughly anyone over 50. 

Is the usage still considered a crime? That depends on whom you ask. As we said in our 2007 blog post, opinions were then shifting and edicts against “like” were softening. Four years later, that’s still the case.

When re-examining a familiar old edict, it’s always worth asking why the edict was laid down in the first place.

The truth is that writers have been using “like” as a conjunction since the 14th century. Chaucer did it. Shakespeare, too. So did Keats, Emily Brontë, Thackeray, George Eliot, Dickens, Kipling, Shaw, and so on.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that objections to “like” as a conjunction were apparently “a 19th-century reaction to increased conjunctive use at that time.”

Furthermore, Merriam-Webster’s says, “the objectors were chiefly commentators on usage rather than grammarians or lexicographers.”

But after World War I, all three groups—usage commentators, grammarians, and lexicographers—were in agreement: “It was incorrect to use like for as or as if,” says M-W; “like was a preposition, not a conjunction.”

By 1959, the authors of The Elements of Style went so far as to call the usage  “illiterate.”

And now? After an extensive examination of the history of the usage, Merriam-Webster’s concludes that “Strunk & White’s relegation of conjunctive like to misuse by the illiterate is wrong.”

R. W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.), agrees.

After doing his own extensive examination of the usage, Burchfield concludes that “like as a conjunction is struggling towards acceptable standard or neutral ground” and that “the long-standing resistance to this omnipresent little word is beginning to crumble.”

After reviewing the subject for our book Origins of the Specious, we came down on the side of Burchfield and Merriam-Webster’s, with this caveat:

“But let’s face facts— or, rather, myths. Anyone who uses ‘like’ as a conjunction, especially in formal writing, risks being accused of illiteracy.” 

So until further notice, be aware that conservative usage guides (and grammar sticklers) still condemn the use of “like” as a conjunction. If you’re inclined to use it this way, consider your audience.

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