Do You Like Like?

We're not talking about this "like."


A colleague visiting us this summer was engaging in that well-worn pastime, complaining about students, and focused her ire on the verbal tic “like.” Our discussion went back and forth, with me in the devil’s advocate role. “They’ll say, ‘Queen Victoria ruled for like 63 years,’” she said, “and I ask them, ‘Was it like 63 years, or was it 63 years?’”

“And how do they respond?” I asked.

“Well, it shuts them up,” she said.

Which was exactly my point. Students are by their nature a nervous bunch, and their self-consciousness while meeting with a professor may be gauged by the frequency of “like” peppering their speech. By drawing attention to the verbal tic (or, as some would have it, discourse particle) that students exhibit, the professor risks inhibiting them from articulating the problem for which they’re seeking help.

My colleague disagreed. She pointed out that young people’s conversation, overheard in the corridors or coffee shop, was similarly rife with “like.” “But don’t you think they’re nervous with one another?” I asked. “Weren’t you nervous most of the time, in college?”

She looked at me strangely. No, she hadn’t been nervous in college. College was where she had always wanted to be, and she had thrived there. Students’ interminable use of “like” indicated a useless affectation, and she would have none of it.

Our disagreement is, on the one hand, a classic example of prescriptivist vs. descriptivist outlooks on language. A recent online discussion illustrated the divide, as a non-native English speaker tried to sort out the correct placement of “like” in a colloquial sentence. He was whipsawed among respondents who argued over whether the “like” tic has “no meaning” or “no real meaning”; whether it constitutes a “flaw in the English language” or, as Muffy Siegel has demonstrated, may be the most efficient way of communicating a particular kind of uncertainty. Had the non-native inquirer delved further, he would have found “like” analyzed as communicating something about the speaker’s relationship to his or her statement; as a “hedge”; as more common (surprisingly!) among males than among females; as an aspect of “sluicing” or elided speech; as a presentation of dramatized dialogue; as a useful point of departure for the study of the interactions of components of grammar. Altogether, a fascinating word.

To which my colleague would no doubt say, “Poppycock.”

On the other hand, our argument said something about dialogue between professors and students, and about youth and age. Though I am too old to have been afflicted by the “like” bug while in college, I do recall engaging in what is known as “uptalk,” wherein factual statements get that querying lift toward the end—“I’m going to the gym now? I’ll finish up around 8?” I remember being teased about this tendency by professors. I recall hearing the lift in my voice, and fighting it, to no avail. I don’t remember when it seemed to disappear, but these days I tend to sound declarative when I’m making a statement and interrogatory when I’m asking a question. I’m tempted, therefore, by a tolerance toward what seems to be an age-cohort phenomenon.

Or is it? Listen closely, next time you and your colleagues are confabbing in the lounge. You will no doubt start to hear something like:

“Quigley’s been teaching here for like 80 years!”

“So my TA was like, ‘I have a doctor’s appointment,’ and I said she could have let me know, but she was like, ‘I’m sure I told you like last week.’”

“Well, I could grade them like over the weekend, but I won’t get the article written.”

Whether “like” is a sin or not, we are no longer without it in the higher echelons of academe—and so I am hesitant to cast, like, the first stone.

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