English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

“Like” minded

Q: During the apocalyptic talk about the Mayan calendar, I wrote, “Planet Earth will not blow up like Krypton or be smashed by Planet X.” Is “like” OK here? (Krypton, the home planet of Superman, blew up just after little Kal-el left.)

A: The passage you wrote is fine as it is. In the sentence “Planet Earth will not blow up like Krypton or be smashed by Planet X,” the words “like” and “by” are prepositions. The underlined parts, “like Krypton” and “by Planet X,” are prepositional phrases.

This represents the traditionally correct use of “like”—as a preposition. The problem you’re thinking of is the use of “like” as a conjunction, a usage many sticklers frown on.

“Like” is used as a conjunction when it introduces a clause, as in “like Krypton did.” (A clause, you probably know, contains a verb and its subject.) A stickler would insist on “as” instead: “as Krypton did” (or “as did Krypton”).

However, the English in your original example is impeccable, even if you regard the verb “did” as implied but not expressed.

But what if you had included the verb (“like Krypton did”)? Here we part company with the sticklers, because even then we’d give you a passing grade.

You’re not writing elevated, formal prose. And as we’ve said before on our blog, the use of “like” as a conjunction is no crime in less than formal writing.

In fact, it represents a return to the past, before the 19th-century prohibition against the conjunctive “like” came along. And you don’t have to take our word for it.

Here’s what Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has to say in a usage note:

“Like has been used as a conjunction since the 14th century. In the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries it was used in serious literature, but not often; in the 17th and 18th centuries it grew more frequent but less literary. It became markedly more frequent in literary use again in the 19th century.”

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s, that the usage came under fire. The dictionary’s conclusion:

“There is no doubt that, after 600 years of use, conjunctive like is firmly established. It has been used by many prestigious literary figures of the past, though perhaps not in their most elevated works; in modern use it may be found in literature, journalism, and scholarly writing. While the present objection to it is perhaps more heated than rational, someone writing in a formal prose style may well prefer to use as, as if, such as, or an entirely different construction instead.”

By the way, you might like to see a posting of ours about the use of “like” for “such as.” (Yes, it’s OK.)

And if you’re still “like”-minded, you might look at an article that Pat wrote for the New York Times Magazine about the use of “like” to quote or paraphrase people, as in “She’s like, what unusual taste you have.”

Check out our books about the English language