Etymology Usage

A likely story: “like” vs. “such as”

Q: I’ve heard that one should use “like” for comparisons and “such as” for examples, but everyone I know uses “like” for examples as well. What’s the story?

A: Respected writers have been using the preposition “like” in the sense of “such as” since at least the early 1800s. And as far as we can tell, no language authority objected to this usage until the second half of the 20th century.

Since then, a handful of commentators have criticized the usage for one reason or another. But other usage authorities have either ignored the issue or pooh-poohed the objections.

Count us among the pooh-poohers.

American and British lexicographers, the people who keep track of how English is actually used, agree with us that one standard meaning of the preposition “like” is “such as.”

We checked a dozen standard dictionaries published on both sides of the Atlantic and they were unanimous on this point.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for instance, gives this example of the usage: “saved things like old newspapers and pieces of string.”

And the Cambridge Dictionaries Online gives this one: “She looks best in bright, vibrant colours, like red and pink.”

When the ancestors of “like” and “such as” entered English in Anglo-Saxon times, the meanings of the two terms were pretty much alike, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Old English source of “like” (gelic) meant “like one another, similar, of identical form or character,” while the Old English ancestor of “such as” (swelce swa) meant “of the kind or degree that; the kind of (person or thing) that.”

If anything, the earliest ancestor of “like” was more specific and suggested an example while the earliest ancestor of “same as” was less specific and suggested a comparison.

It wasn’t until the late 17th century, according to OED citations, that “such as” took on the sense of “for example.”

Here’s an early usage from A History of the Earth and Animated Nature, a 1795 work by Oliver Goldsmith: “All of the cat kind, such as the lion, the tiger, the leopard, and the ounce.”

Not long after Goldsmith wrote that, other writers began using “like” in the same way, according to published references collected by the language researcher Mark Israel with the help of the Merriam-Webster editorial department.

Here are a couple of examples from Jane Austen’s novels:

“Good sense, like hers, will always act when really called upon,” Mansfield Park (1814).

“A straightforward, open-hearted man, like Weston, and a rational unaffected woman, like Miss Taylor, may be safely left to manage their own concerns,” Emma (1816).

And here’s an example from Charles Darwin: “to argue that because a well-stocked island, like Great Britain, has not, as far as is known” (On the Origin of Species, 1859).

The OED—from its earliest “like” entry, published in 1903, to its latest online entry—has consistently said “like” often has the sense of “such as.”

(The earliest entry was published in a fascicle, or book part, before the first edition was completed or even called the OED.)

The dictionary’s first citation for the usage is from an 1886 letter by Robert Louis Stevenson: “A critic like you is one who fights the good fight, contending with stupidity.”

OK, lexicographers like the usage, but what about usage authorities?

Well, Henry Fowler, the language maven’s language maven, certainly didn’t see anything wrong with using “like” this way.

In the 1911 first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, which Fowler edited with his brother, Francis, one meaning of “like” is listed as “resembling, such as.”

As an example of the usage, the Fowlers give “a critic like you,” and say “like” is being used to mean “of the class that you exemplify.” Yup, as an example!

Interestingly, neither the original 1926 edition of Henry Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage nor the 1965 second edition, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, cites any problem with using “like” in the sense of “such as.”

It’s not until the third edition, edited by Robert Burchfield in 1996 and 1998,  that an eyebrow is raised about the usage. Burchfield says the use of “like” for “such as” is sometimes questioned because of possible ambiguity.

As an example, he says the title of Kingsley Amis’s 1960 novel A Girl Like You could be read as referring to the girl herself or a girl resembling her.

We think that he’s nitpicking and that it would be silly to use a clunky title like A Girl Such as You to help the one reader in a million who might misread the original. And remember, Henry Fowler himself used “a critic like you” as an example of proper usage.

So where did Burchfield, a pretty tolerant language guy, get the idea that the use of “like” for “such as” may be confusing?

We can’t ask him, since he died in 2004, but we assume he was influenced by the few objections raised in the second half of the 20th century to a usage that had passed without notice since the early 1800s and perhaps earlier.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has a half-page entry on how some language mavens blew this issue of ambiguity out of proportion in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Wilson Follett appears to be the first language authority to write about the “shade of difference” between “such as” and “like” used in this sense.

In Modern American Usage (1966), Follett says the two terms “may often be interchanged,” but “such as leads the mind to imagine an indefinite group of objects” while “like” suggests “a closer resemblance among the things compared.”

Because of “this extremely slight distinction,” he says, some critics may object to the phase “a writer like Shakespeare” on the ground that no writer is like Shakespeare.

He adds, however, that “context usually makes clear what the comparison proposes to our attention. Such as Shakespeare may sound less impertinent, but if Shakespeare were totally incomparable such as would be open to the same objection as like.”

A few years after Follett’s book came out, another language authority, Theodore M. Bernstein, made light of the issue and used Beethoven instead of Shakespeare as an example.

In Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins, Bernstein’s 1971 book about language myths and misconceptions, he writes that “only some nit-pickers object to saying, ‘German composers like Beethoven.’ ”

Interestingly, both Follett and Bernstein seem to feel that “like” may be somewhat more specific than “such as”—that is, “like” may suggest an example and “such as” a similarity.

Leslie Sellers, in Keeping Up the Style (1975), appears to be the first language writer to suggest that “such as” should refer to examples and “like” to similarities.

H. Ramsey Fowler and Quentin L. Gehle then picked up the idea in The Little Brown Handbook (1980), followed by James Kilpatrick, in Reflections on the Writing Art (1993), and a few other commentators.

After reviewing these “rather diverse opinions,” Merriam-Webster’s concludes that there’s no agreement on standard usage here and  that “the issue of ambiguity, which evidently underlies the opinion of those who urge the distinction, is probably much overblown.”

The usage guide goes on to list eight 20th-century examples of “like” used for “such as,” including a 1956 letter in which Flannery O’Connor refers to “reading someone like Hemingway,” and two books in which language mavens use “like” this way:

Words on Paper (1960), by Roy H. Copperud: “Phrases like three military personnel are irreproachable and convenient.”

American English Today (1985), by Hans P. Guth: “Avoid clipped forms like bike, prof, doc.”

In none of the examples, the M-W editors add, “can you detect any ambiguity of meaning, either as they are written with like or as they would read if you substituted such as.”

In summary, most English speakers don’t recognize a distinction between these two terms, and the few usage writers who believe in a distinction can’t agree on what it is.

We use both “like” and “such as” to mean “for example,” though Pat considers “such as” a bit stuffy and uses it less than Stewart.

What do we do when we want to emphasize that we’re referring to an example? We simply use “for example” or “including” or a similar term:

“The writers we reread the most—for example, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, P. G. Wodehouse, and Angela Thirkell—all have a sense of humor.”

Finally, if you’re up for reading more about “like,” Pat wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine in 2007 about its use in “She’s like, ‘No way,’ ” and a blog post that same year about its use in “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

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