On Language: “Like”

From the New York Times Magazine, July 15, 2007


Like is a friendly word. As a verb, it gives off affectionate vibes. In other parts of speech, it’s a mensch as well, emphasizing what things have in common, not what separates them. But there’s another like in the air, a gossipy usage that has grammar purists — and many parents of teenagers — climbing the walls.

This upstart like is the new say, and users (or abusers, depending on which side you take) find it a handy tool for quoting or paraphrasing the speech of others, often with sarcasm or irony. Linguists call it the “quotative like,” but any 16-year-old can show you how it works.

For example, like can introduce an actual quotation (“She’s like, ‘What unusual shoes you’re wearing!’ ”) or paraphrase one (“She’s like, my shoes are weird!”). Or it can summarize the inner thoughts of either the quoter or the quotee (“She’s like, yeah, as if I’d be caught dead in them! And I’m like, I care what you think?”).

Like even lets a speaker imitate the behavior of the person being quoted (“She’s like . . . ” and the speaker smirks and rolls her eyes).

This like is not to be confused with the one that sticklers see as a meaningless verbal tic (“The band was, like, outrageous!”). Linguists would argue, however, that even that one has its uses — to emphasize something (“I was, like, exhausted!”) or to hedge a statement (“We had, like, six hours of homework!”).

But back to the like that’s used as a marker to introduce quotes (real or approximate) as well as thoughts, attitudes and even gestures. Parents may gnash their teeth, but language scholars like like.

“It’s a shame this poor little usage gets such a bum rap,” says Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain, an associate professor at the University of Alberta in Canada and one of several people interviewed by e-mail for this column. Dailey-O’Cain, who has published an often-cited study on the use of like, says, “It’s innovative, it serves a particular function and it does specific things that you can’t duplicate with other quotatives.”

The other quoting words commonly used in speech are say, of course, along with go (“He goes, ‘Give me your wallet’ ”) and all (“I’m all, ‘Sure, dude, it’s yours’ ”). But like definitely has legs. In just a generation or so it has spread throughout much of the English-speaking world.

O.K., the new like is hot and it’s useful, but is it legit? Aren’t some rules of grammar or usage being broken here?

Linguists and lexicographers say no. It’s natural, they say, for words to take on new roles. In this case, a “content word” (one that means something) has become a “function word” (one that has a grammatical function but little actual meaning). Academics call the process “grammaticalization.” It’s one of the ways language changes.

So is the new like proper English? Well, the latest editions of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary now include it as a usage heard in informal speech. That’s not a ringing endorsement, but it’s not a condemnation either.

As for me, I’m convinced that this is a useful, even ingenious, addition to informal spoken English. But let’s be honest. For now, at least, it smacks of incorrectness to a great many people. In writing my grammar book for kids, I wrestled with this problem. In the end, I suggested that the usage is O.K. in informal conversation but not for situations requiring your best English.

Contrary to popular opinion, like is not exclusively a kid thing. Grown-ups use it too, men and women about equally, according to Dailey-O’Cain.

“Part of what inspired my study was the fact that my mother (who was in her 50s at the time) used to complain about other people using like,” she says. “But once I started pointing it out to her every single time she used it herself, she stopped making those kinds of criticisms!”

The linguist Geoffrey Pullum, an author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, finds the usage “quite logical and reasonable.” And he agrees that it’s not confined to youngsters. “My former student Jessica Maki caught her 65-year-old aunt, who grew up in North Carolina, saying, ‘I’m like, don’t answer the telephone!’ ”

Yet part of the resistance to like may be due to its youthful rep. “People see it as associated with teenagers,” says Arnold Zwicky, a visiting professor of linguistics at Stanford. “In general, variants associated with young people tend to be disdained.”

Another unfounded assumption about like is that it’s used by the less educated among us. “A lot of people are going to say that the variant just ‘sounds uneducated,’ and no amount of factual evidence is likely to counter this judgment,” Zwicky says. “Here we have another factor contributing to people’s disdain for quotative like, especially in their own children: nobody wants their kids to sound uneducated.”

I’ve always believed that young people are capable of knowing when to use formal versus informal, written versus spoken English. Zwicky’s experience with like-mindedness seems to bear this out. “It’s a specifically spoken form,” he says. “I don’t see it in writing, even from my students who are heavy users of it in speech, except when they’re producing writing that they intend to sound like speech.”

A word to parents: Loosen up. You may be using like this way yourselves without even realizing it. I have a confession to make. My husband caught me in the act only the other day. He was like, “Did you hear what you just said?”

Patricia T. O’Conner’s most recent book is “Woe Is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.” She is working on a book about language myths and misconceptions. William Safire is on vacation.