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in defence of “like”

When I was in high school I had an English teacher who was a self-proclaimed language snob. With hunched shoulders and a heavy scowl he would stalk the corridors, scanning the cacophony of teenage girls for sloppy English. If he heard you say ‘presume’ when you should have said ‘assume’, or ‘that’ when you meant ‘which’ you would be subjected to a mini lecture. His pet hate was the word ‘like’. In his mind, ‘like’ was an abomination.

I was reminded of this eccentric teacher when I read a piece by author Martin Amis.  Amis was describing his friend, fellow writer Christopher Hitchens: ‘Christopher is one of the most terrifying rhetoricians that the world has yet seen. Christopher talks not only in complete sentences but also in complete paragraphs.’

After reading this assessment of the great writer I wrote out a New Year’s resolution: try to talk like Christopher Hitchens. In my mind, Hitchens embodied wit and eloquence. He could skewer his enemies and charm his friends using only his words. Fashioning myself into a terrifying rhetorician like Hitchens seemed like a sensible, even admirable, thing to try.

And so for a few hours I tried to speak in correct sentences. I imagined where punctuation marks would go as I spoke. I paused for colons and expanded contractions. Finally, I erased all the fillers from my speech. ‘Like’ was a dirty word according to the gospel of Hitchens.

As you can imagine I didn’t last long.

Try it. It’s fucking hard! You’ll sound like a robot. Grammatical and articulate, sure, but also creepy and stiff.

So my goal to speak like Hitchens failed miserably but I learnt a lesson: ‘like’ is, like, totally okay. People should just stop hating on ‘like’.

My high school English teacher is a somewhat extreme example of the style police who turn their noses up at ‘like’ but there are others such as Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. Thompson and Fry believe people make themselves sound stupid by peppering their speech with ‘like’.

However, ‘like’ is just one of many extensible filler words that have developed over the years. Every generation and cultural group has them. They are woven into our vernacular naturally because it is near impossible to maintain highly-grammatical speech.

‘Like’ actually has a long and proud history. Many people believe that ‘like’ popped out of the etymological womb after the release of Frank and Moon Unit Zappa’s 1982 song Valley Girl. The song mocks Californian ‘Valspeak’ and includes lyrics such as ‘It’s like, barf me out’ and ‘He goes like, bag your face’. In actual fact, ‘like’ has been used as a filler for much longer. As early as the 19th century people in regional Wales and Scotland have used ‘like’ as a filler and quotative word. We can see an example in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel Kidnapped when a character asks, ‘What’s, like, wrong with him?’

Other early examples include a 1928 cartoon from the New Yorker that reads, ‘What’s he got – an awfice?’ ‘No, he’s got like a loft.’ Then in 1962 the word sneaks into A Clockwork Orange: ‘I, like, didn’t say anything.’

‘Like’ is a very flexible word. It can be used as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, filler and quotative. It is used to stall for time, to help us pause and think, to fill gaps and glue sentences together, to indicate reported speech and exaggeration, and introduce gestures. As with other colloquial words, ‘like’ also marks out members of a club. It can help people identify and socialise with a particular culture, generation or group.

This is perhaps why Thompson, Fry, and my English teacher have such a problem with the word. They are disassociated from the group that employ ‘like’ and therefore notice it and question it.

For example, I notice and question acronymns such as ‘YOLO’ and ‘LOL’. I feel like slapping people when they say LOL instead of ACTUALLY LAUGHING LIKE A NORMAL PERSON. I also twitch like an Angry Beever when people use YOLO to assuage guilt or responsibility. ‘No condom #YOLO’. Not okay. To paraphrase a quote from Mean Girls:Don’t have unprotected sex because you will get pregnant AND DIE’.

That being said I acknowledge that these acronyms are just part of the evolution of language. ‘YOLO’ and ‘LOL, like ‘like’, are just examples of how the human race is constantly changing the way we communicate and establish meaning. Linguistic invention helps our language thrive. After all wasn’t there that guy back in the 16th century who was writing plays about star-crossed lovers and making up crazy words that challenged convention and enriched the English language? He was, like, totally rad dude.

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6 thoughts on “in defence of “like”

  1. So true! This offers a whole new way of looking at things for me. I’m very interested in writing, and my new focus has been to speak as I truly mean. I interpreted that to mean, speaking “like a robot”. But, really, it’s little things, like, “like”, that create a bond with talking to our fellow peeps.

  2. “Try it. It’s fucking hard! You’ll sound like a robot. Grammatical and articulate, sure, but also creepy and stiff.”

    I disagree. Speaking like a robot will make you sound like a robot e.g. without varying tones and pitch. Eloquence isn’t *just* about word choice and structure – emoting is critical. You’ll only sound like a robot if you suck all of the humanity and individuality out of your speech.

    The problem I have the use of ‘like’ (and its ilk) is that they’re used as a crutch that limits communication, connection, ect. Filler is fine (Hitchens has his shares of ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’). Being vague isn’t.

    “I was, like, ‘You gotta chill.'”

    Did you think that? Did you say that? Perhaps it was mimed. “I said…”, “I thought…”, “I communicated [x] via dance” are all more effective.

    Shakespeare may have invented words but the words were invented for a purpose. They, once understood, communicated something. ‘Like’ doesn’t communicate much of anything and thus inhibits the kinds of bonds and connections it supposedly promotes. (I’d also argue that its sheer pervasiveness limits its marker of social groups or generations.)

    It is, after all, just a crutch. A filler word. And it’s (largely) inoffensive in that roll. I just don’t think it can be thought of as more than that.

    Tony Judt’s article ‘Words’ is no doubt a better explanation (and expansion) on my thoughts here:

    • Also:

      “‘YOLO’ and ‘LOL, like ‘like’, are just examples of how the human race is constantly changing the way we communicate and establish meaning.”

      If ‘like’ has been used since the 1880s doesn’t contemporary use of ‘like’ show a stagnation of our language?

  3. I’m a little disappointed to see a writer advocate the degradation of language.

    Similar arguments have been made in supporting the abolition of the apostrophe. Heaps of people forget it, so we might as well just get rid of it – in the name of an ‘evolving’ language.

    The whole ‘speaking like Christopher Hitchens is too hard, you sound like a robot so it’s bad’ thing sounds a lot like ‘herd mentality’. Let’s embrace the dumb rather than strive for something more articulate because most people can relate to that right?

    ‘Like’ is slang, which is okay when you’re chatting with your pals, but nothing more. It is, as you’ve said, ‘filler’. It doesn’t add meaning, it removes it. As a writer you should be supporting creativity, freedom and better self-expression in the exploration of more precise and illustrative words, rather than advocate a rather lazy and stagnant use of ‘like’.

  4. The thing we need to remember is that grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive- that is, it DESCRIBES the language we use, rather than telling us how we should use it. So the whole ‘ungrammatical’ or ‘degradation’ argument doesn’t really work in any objective sense. It’s really just a matter of personal preference.

    Littering your speech with ‘like’ does give you a certain image. If you don’t like that, but don’t know what else to say, good substitute for the word ‘like’ is just a pause in the spot you would have otherwise said ‘like’. Makes people think you’re thoughtful too, ha!

    I try and avoid saying ‘like’ too much, but don’t judge people who employ it with vigor. I’m not sure how I’d feel seeing it used in an article though!

  5. Fatima I don’t quite understand where you’re coming from. If you want to look at it philosophically my ‘preference’ comes from an evolutionary standpoint: language is a means of communication. Have you never read 1984? One can’t think outside of language. The more limited one’s vocab is, the more limited their capacity for thought. How can one articulate a thought without the words to do so? Going on from this rather extreme position, encouraging and embracing a limited vocab would be considered ‘degradation’ because it stunts communication (language’s purpose).

    You’re right though, ultimately your use of language comes down to personal preference. However if you want respect it’s a different matter altogether.

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