Image: Getty Images
By Ben Yagoda
Recently on NPR’s Morning Edition, an American college student studying in China described a class exercise about what the country would be like in 20 years. Referring to some Chinese students in the course, she said, “They wore, like, Chinese military garb to the presentation. And they had, like, the whole banner that said, ‘The 10th anniversary of Taiwan’s return to China.’ And that was, like, a big deal for the Taiwanese students. They were, like, extremely upset over it.”
If you weren’t counting, she said “like” four times within four sentences of a 44-word comment. And she used the word in particular, recognizable ways that weren’t traditional. By “traditional” I mean using like as a verb (“Jim likes Mary”), preposition (“Sally looks like Betty”; “he reminds me of artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer”), noun (“cookies, donuts, and the like”; “my post got 25 likes”), suffix (“he has many mentor-like qualities”), comparative complementizer (“It felt like we were in outer space”), or even conjunction, which was controversial in the 1950s (“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”) but is now fairly widely accepted.
To some degree we’ve gotten used to an excess of likes in American speech. It was far more shocking back in 1982, when Frank and Moon Unit Zappa released “Valley Girl,” a song that contained the following passage: ”Like, oh my God!/ Like, totally!/ Encino is, like, so bitchin’/ There’s, like, the Galleria/ And, like/ All these, like, really great shoe stores.”
The outrage may have died down a bit but roughly since then, like has been Exhibit A when older people criticize the way young people talk — generating more dislike than even uptalk, vocal fry, and sentences that start with “so.”
Complaints are heard most frequently from members of two groups. First, parents, such as the singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, who in his song “Cobwebs” (1995) calls the word “an assault to my mind’s ear” and sings, “when I hear it/I can’t stand it/Especially coming out of the mouths of one of my own kids.”
The second group is college professors, one of whom wrote in The Chronicle seven years ago that of the roughly million words he reckoned the English language to comprise, “only one do I hold in contempt. That word is ‘like’ — not the tepid expression of mild appreciation but the parasitic form that now bleeds the mother tongue, marks the user as a dunce, and, were it truly understood, scandalizes our schools.” In that essay, the professor wrote that he even resorted to writing “LIKE” in large letters on the back of a legal pad and holding it up every time a student uttered the word.
Studies have suggested that a dislike of, if not outright contempt for, the nontraditional version of like — which I’ll abbreviate from this point on as “NTL” — is widely held. One experiment found that subjects perceived heavy like users as less intelligent (but more attractive, cheerful, and friendly) than people who abstained from the word. And in another study, job interviewers’ ratings revealed that use of like negatively affected hirability. (You can find these studies here and here.)
That being the case, is it a professor’s duty to intervene when students (over)use like? Maybe not going so far as to hold up a “LIKE” sign every time a student says it, but doing an intervention of some kind?
Possibly the person on earth best qualified to answer that question is the scholar from whom I learned about the studies mentioned two paragraphs above: Alexandra D’Arcy, a professor of linguistics at the University of Victoria and author of the 2017 book Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context: Eight Hundred Years of LIKE, a comprehensive study of NTL.
In an interview, D’Arcy said that when her students use the word in the classroom, “I don’t respond at all. I don’t say anything.”
She had more to say on that subject, but first, I’ll pass along some of her findings, which run counter to the conventional wisdom about NTL in two ways.
It’s, like, really useful. First, D’Arcy refutes the general perception that it’s merely, as Wainwright puts it, “an audible pause … that don’t mean a thing.” In fact, recordings show speakers rarely pause before or after the word, as people do with other particles, such as “um” and “you know.”
“There are multiple likes that are out there,” she said. “Some annoy us more than others, but they all have very clear functions in the language.” Using a wide variety of examples, she described four distinct NTLs, all of them arguably useful and even elegant:
- One is as an adverb of approximation. That’s the way Donald Trump employed it when speaking about his 2018 visit with Queen Elizabeth II: “It was supposed to last 15 minutes but it lasted like an hour.” That’s also how Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, used it in early June: “The problem with California is that you could spend like hundreds of millions of dollars and it will feel like you spent five pennies."
- A second usage applies approximation — not just to nouns and noun phrases indicating things like quantity and time, as “about” does — but to adjectives, verbs, and just about anything. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat, recently said this about a documentary in which she was featured: “You know, I’m like ugly crying on the screen.”
- The third function suggests a more general approximation. It’s when, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains it, like is “used as a marker, intensifier, or filler in conversation or spoken discourse to introduce or focus attention on a following statement or question.” That applies to the use of like by the American student in China, and to how Terry Gross recently used the word on her NPR show, Fresh Air: “The college years coincide with the years that some mood disorders start to express themselves or express themselves more fully. And so like that can be a very negative interaction.”
- Finally, combined with “to be,” like is a verb of attribution, as in “He was like, ‘That is insane.’” To appreciate the usefulness here, consider the logical alternative: said. The problem is that said implies word-for-word accuracy, and no one, in conversation, is purporting to present that. Another option would be, “He said something to the effect of, ‘That is insane.’” — which would get some seriously funny looks.
Like, it’s not new. D’Arcy persuasively shows that NTL is not a new thing. People my age and older remember its association with the beatniks of the 1950s and ‘60s. The OED cites a 1950 quote from Larry Rivers (“Like how much can you lay on me?”) and from Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road (“all hung up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears”).
Notice was taken in the culture at large. In his 1960 book, Growing Up Absurd, Paul Goodman wrote that “a more general withdrawal, from experiencing altogether, is expressed by the omnicapable word ‘like.’ E.g., ‘Like I’m sleepy,’ meaning ‘If I experienced anything, it would be feeling sleepy.’ ‘Like if I go to like New York, I’ll look you up, indicating that in this definite and friendly promise, there is no felt purpose in that trip or any trip. Technically, ‘like’ is here a particle expressing a tonality or attitude of utterance.” He compared it to the Greek terms for “verily” and “now look.”
In the 1960s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, like was the most notable component of the vocabulary of the beatnik sidekick Maynard G. Krebs. For example, this exchange followed an apology to Maynard from pompous Professor Pomfritt:
Maynard G. Krebs: “You’re like forgiven.”
Prof. Pomfritt: “Like thank you.”
Maynard: “Like you’re welcome.”
Prof. Pomfritt: “Can you answer the question?”
Maynard: “Like no.”
Prof. Pomfritt: “Like that’s what I figured!”
But D’Arcy takes it way, way farther back, with an impressive battery of quotes from databases of spoken and written English. For example:
- “I kept all the mortgage books and was secretary for like a hundred and fifteen dollars a month” — 1887.
- “You’d never believe Pig Route. Like, you’d need to see the road to believe it” — 1875.
- “They were just like sitting, waiting to die” — 1925.
The one NTL that appears to be legitimately new is the quotative. The OED’s first citation is from the “Valley Girl” song: “She’s like Oh my God.”
D’Arcy doesn’t emphasize this, but I’ll counter a third misapprehension: that NTL is exclusively the province of the young.
Donald Trump was born in 1946, Terry Gross in 1951, and Faiz Shakir in 1979. The correspondent on the NPR segment in which the American student was featured, Steve Inskeep (born 1968) said, in describing the Chinese campus, “There’s even, like, a little marshland.”
I am in my 60s and I hear myself and my friends use like this way, fruitfully. It brings to mind “Baron’s Law of Usage,” formulated by the grammarian Dennis Baron, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: “Whatever feature you complain about, it’s certain that you use it yourself.”
All that being said, excessive use of like absolutely can be problematic. It can, indeed, sound like a tic and reflect negatively on a speaker. But in teaching students about this, a rap-their-knuckles approach just doesn’t seem like the way to go.
I retired from teaching last year, but I feel pretty confident if I had tried holding up LIKE signs in my classroom — or even borrowed Prof. Pomfritt’s subtle sarcastic approach — my students, reluctant to talk in the best of times, would have completely shut down.
D’Arcy, who can fairly be described as a “like” enthusiast, knows there’s a time and place for the word. She’s fortunate that in her linguistics classes, the very idea that there’s a time and place for certain kinds of language is part of the curriculum.
“There are stylistic conventions and norms,” she said. “If what we’re trying to do is prepare people for performance in an interview … you wouldn’t want them um-ing and ah-ing the whole time. You wouldn’t want them saying ‘you know’ and ‘right,’ or ‘eh?’ They all become part of teaching how to present yourself in such a way that you’re perceived as professional. Just as you don’t want to go into a job interview with dirty wrinkled clothes.
“So I do teach about stylistic variation. I often talk about ‘like,’ and I do end up talking about when it would be better to use it. It works when you’re with your friends — not in a professional presentation or an interview.”
It wouldn’t hurt to devote part of a class session each semester, whatever the discipline, to this subject. But here’s the thing: Is that even necessary anymore? I’ve discussed that with colleagues at the University of Delaware, and many of us have noticed that overuse of NTL is less and less of an issue. But that doesn’t mean the usage is disappearing or even generally diminishing. As D’Arcy explained: “I’ve had colleagues say to me, ‘Students in my first-year seminars use ‘like’ all the time. But by the time they’re in my fourth-year seminars or my grad classes, I notice they’re using it a lot less, so I’m convinced that ‘like’ is going away.’ And my answer is: ‘It’s not that it’s going away, it’s that your students are maturing and they’re figuring out academic culture.’”
The American student featured on NPR, significantly, is a first-year student. My money says that by the time she’s a senior, her use of like in interviews, class discussions, and professional settings will have, like, disappeared.
Ben Yagoda is a professor emeritus of English and journalism at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. His blogs are Benyagoda.com and MoviesInOtherMovies.com. Read his previous Chronicle posts here.