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Liking (or at least understanding) like: Part 2

Alexandra D’Arcy is a sociolinguist by training and specializes in the study of language variation and change. She is an Assistant Professor in Linguistics and the Director of the newly formed Sociolinguistics Lab at the University of Victoria. This is the second installation about the word like.

In my last post I discussed how the word like has a long history in English. I also talked about its perception as a scourge on the language. But there isn’t just one like—there’s an array of likes. The thing is, they all sound the same. This makes it seem as though like is being used often (some will say too often), but those likes aren’t all doing the same thing. Each one has a specialized job.

There are the grammatical uses of like. These are the verb (I like coffee), noun (He eats hamburgers, hot dogs and the like) and suffix (This gel is rather glue-like). On the more contentious side there is the adverb (It looks like a snail) and conjunction (It felt like my world had ended).

Then there are those other categories, the ones we don’t like. For starters, like can signal approximation (I think I was like five when that happened) and hyperbole (It took me all day to go like three miles). It can also signal that we’re about to elaborate, illustrate or exemplify something we’ve just said (Nobody said anything. Like my first experience with death was…).

What a handy rhetorical device. But there’s more. It can also introduce a direct quote (She’s like ‘Wow, that’s cool.’). Like say and think, it can introduce someone’s speech or their thoughts. But like doesn’t stop there. When relating a story, for example, it can also be used to introduce sound effects and gestures (She’s like ‘[makes surprised face]’). Say and think can’t do that.

But perhaps its most important job is social rather than linguistic. It’s part of the communicative toolkit that we use to make people feel more comfortable when they’re talking to us. If we don’t use like (and the like) when conversing informally, we can be perceived as somewhat dogmatic, even unfriendly or aloof.

What I take from this: Regardless of whether or not we like like, it has many different uses and they all serve fundamental and palpable social functions in our face-to-face interactions.

Coming next: Why like isn’t random.

Recent Comments

  1. Michelle Hutchinson

    All the disliked categories you mentioned, i.e., the ones starting in the third paragraph, are disliked because they are improper uses of “like.” You wrote, “If we don’t use like (and the like) when conversing informally, we can be perceived as somewhat dogmatic, even unfriendly or aloof.” I disagree. I think people use “like” as filler, much the same way others use “Um,” “Uh,” or “You know.” If people would pause each time they are about to say those fillers, they would learn to stop using them. When I hear someone use “like” (and the like) when conversing informally, I perceive them as immature, nervous, or uneducated.

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  3. Taylor Marie Young

    While it may be true that the disliked categories of “like” are traditionally incorrect usages of the word, that they are frequent and well-established in the conventional usage of English today is undeniable. Beyond a prescriptivist’s stand point, these “incorrect” instances of “like” can be the communicative tools for language learners and native speakers alike. Fillers, or conversational gambits like “um,” “uh,” “so,” “and,” and certainly “like,” are often strategic tools used by speakers to achieve communicative competence. The degree to which and context in which “like” is used, as well as how it affects the subjective quality of one’s speech, is certainly debatable. I disagree that speakers can simply learn to pause every time they are tempted to use the above mentioned “fillers.” Several components are at play in speech, only one of which encompasses grammatical accuracy. Furthermore, grammatical accuracy can and often is usurped by other conversational priorities: semantic variation, dialectical differences, signaling relationships among speakers, and rhetorical strategies to name a few. Grammatical dogmatism can put speakers at risk of losing the full communicative potential of the language they are using and is often underlying language misperceptions, stereotypes and misinformed judgements about speakers.

  4. Kim O'Hare

    Perhaps I am grammatically dogmatic; however I resist changes which result in a word such as “like” becoming a multi-purpose solution for what I believe is lazy communication. The more multi-purpose words we embrace, the less precise our language becomes. All of the examples of the disliked use of like can be improved by use of other, more precise words. The problem with multi-purpose tools in language, as in anything else, is that while they can be used for many tasks, they don’t excel at any.

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