Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

She’s like, “No way!”

Q: My 12-year-old daughter is reporting to a friend about a conversation she heard, and once again she begins “He’s like” instead of “He said.” I find this form of talk very colorful and filled with unintentional humor. Is it the result of all the texting kids do rather than actually speaking to each other?

A: This is a something we’ve frequently written about—we had a blog item on it only last month—but it’s a subject that language mavens love to discuss.

This use of “like” (sometimes called the “quotative like”) was popularized in the 1980s in Valley Girl speech, long before teenagers began texting one another. And it’s not the only nontraditional way youngsters quote people.

In informal conversation, many people (especially the younger ones) often don’t quote someone by using the verb “say.” Instead of “She said, ‘No way!’” a teenager may choose one of three methods for quoting people:

(1) “She’s like, ‘No way!’ ”

(2) “She’s all, ‘No way!’ ”

(3) “She goes, ‘No way!’ ”

So instead of using the verb “say,” the speaker substitutes “be + like,” “be + all,” or “go.”

Pat wrote an On Language  column for the New York Times Magazine a while back that discusses this “be + like” business. And the two of us wrote about it in our book Origins of the Specious.

As we say in the book, “like” is used informally to introduce quotes (real or approximate) as well as thoughts, attitudes, and even gestures.

It has a lot in common, we write, with the other quoting words commonly used in speech: the old standby “say,” along with newcomers “go” (“He goes, ‘Give me your wallet,’ ”) and “all” (“I’m all, ‘Sure, dude, it’s yours’ ”).

But “like” does even more than these, and in just a generation or so it has spread throughout much of the English- speaking world.

Standard dictionaries have taken note of these usages too.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says in a usage note: “Along with be all and go, the construction combining be and like has become a common way of introducing quotations in informal conversation, especially among younger people: So I’m like, ‘Let’s get out of here!’

“As with go,” American Heritage adds, “this use of like can also announce a brief imitation of another person’s behavior, often elaborated with facial expressions and gestures.”

The dictionary says it “can also summarize a past attitude or reaction (instead of presenting direct speech). If a woman says I’m like, ‘Get lost buddy!’ she may or may not have used those actual words to tell the offending man off.”

“In fact,” AH says, “she may not have said anything to him but instead may be summarizing her attitude at the time by stating what she might have said, had she chosen to speak.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has this within its “like” entries:

“Used interjectionally in informal speech often with the verb be to introduce a quotation, paraphrase, or thought expressed by or imputed to the subject of the verb, or with it’s to report a generally held opinion (So I’m like, ‘Give me a break’ … It’s like, ‘Who cares what he thinks?’ )”

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