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6 Likes, Liked and Disliked

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Like No. 2

Linda Hall writes in The Conversation about strategies for getting students to make less use of the hated monosyllable like. She cites (and admits that she respects) an essay by David Grambs, “The Like Virus,” in the August 2011 edition of The Vocabula Review, a subscription-only online periodical of linguistic peeving (it is reprinted in Exploring Language, edited by Gary Goshgarian, pages 303-310).

Grambs (could that be a clerical error for “Gramps” or “Grumps”?) doesn’t just hate young people, with their sloppy diction and sensitivity to fashion and openness to change; he resents having to breathe the same air as young people. Naturally he is a fan of Orwell’s overrated “Politics and the English Language.” Aping a dishonest rhetorical move of Orwell’s (see my “Orwell and the Not Unblack Dog”), he constructs a sentence absurdly replete with instances of like, in hopes that by memorizing it you may inoculate yourself against the “like virus”:

Like, like as not, to tell it like it is, like Jane has no, like, liking for the like, likes of Dick, like it or not.

Clueless about grammatical analysis, Grambs is unwittingly confusing half a dozen distinct words belonging to five different word classes (“parts of speech”). Let me review the main ones, ignoring one or two rare or obsolete uses of this versatile syllable:

  1. Uncontroversially, there is a verb meaning “regard with approval,” illustrated by any color you like or Everyone likes Italian food.
  2. There is a somewhat marginal noun with a range of different meanings such as “favored thing” (likes and dislikes), “equivalent” (We shall not see his like again), and “online record of favorable opinion” (My recipe for biscotti got 21 likes on Facebook!).
  3. There is a never-attributive adjective meaning “similar to” that (most unusually for an adjective) takes an obligatory noun-phrase complement. It occurs predicatively It was very like a clock. (Notice that the adverb very in the sense “extremely” is almost entirely restricted to being a modifier of an adjective or adverb, not of a preposition.)
  4. There is another use in contemporary colloquial English that I will treat separately, though I think it is also an adjective, and a natural development from the sense described in 3. It introduces direct quotations in vivid descriptions of conversations and situations: So I was like, “What is this?” and she was like, duh!  The meaning of I was like “X” is, approximately, “My demeanor was similar to that of someone who might say X or some rough equivalent of X.” A gestural indication of the speaker’s subjective experience often accompanies this use; in fact the quoted speech can be completely replaced by a grunt or shrug or facial expression.
  5. There is a preposition used with various kinds of complement: Expresses meanings of similarity or analogy in certain comparative constructions, it may take either a comparative-clause complement (as in the grammatically controversial slogan Winston tastes good like a cigarette should), or sometimes a noun phrase or preposition phrase complement (as in Like hemophiliacs, gays were at higher risk, which doesn’t entail that gays are similar to hemophiliacs; or Smartphones have caught on like wildfire; or Edinburgh is crowded on New Year’s Eve, just like in the summer). The preposition can also take a plain declarative subordinate-clause complement, as in Say it like you mean it, or Prince’s Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999. Such uses are informal in style, and are deprecated by conservative usage specialists: They insist (counter-historically) that like should not be used as a conjunction, by which they mean “subordinating conjunction,” following a traditional misanalysis of the prepositions that take subordinate-clause complements (see my “Being a Preposition”).
  6. Finally, the most-hated use is as an interjection: It was, like, incredible! or It’s not as if I’m going to, like, flee the country. This is not nearly as recent as Grambs and his ilk believe (it has been tracked back to the 1920s). Nor is it slovenly or harmful. Semantically it hedges the following expression slightly, acknowledging that it might not be precisely correct, and there could be alternative ways of putting things. This is why John McWhorter’s New York Times article associates it with politeness.

These words all serve their various purposes well enough. Yet Grambs’s hostility to overuse of the quotation-introducing and interjective uses inclines him to wage incoherent war on all of them simultaneously. I have no idea why Linda Hall would tell her students that she respects this disagreeable crank; he should get a life.

Anyone antipathetic to uses 4 or 6 in the above classification should simply avoid those uses. I rarely employ them myself. But I don’t waste neural activity on hating them, or despising the people who do use them, or trying to get such people to stop.

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