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.