In many ways, like is one of the most, well, disliked words in the English language. There are few words which are more synonymous with the perceived decline in ability to use English effectively among native speakers. How better to imitate lazy, inarticulate teenager than by peppering your speech with a few like‘s?
However, I have to ask: is like really so bad?
First, I think we need to look at how it’s used when it annoys us.
The following pair of sentences probably wouldn’t generate any controversy:
I like reading fascinating articles about words.
He’s just like his brother.
In the first sentence, to like is a verb, and in the second, like is a preposition. These are the most common uses of the word. Like can also be used as a conjunction meaning in the same way:
He changes girlfriends like he changes shirts.
This is considered to be informal in some circles, but certainly not incorrect. Another use of like as a conjunction is to mean as though or as if:
I feel like I’ve just read some of the most amazing facts about the English language! I feel like I need to tell everybody!
While using like like this has been done since the 15th century, it’s still considered non-standard usage by some would-be authorities. Still, even if you don’t like the word being used in this way, it probably doesn’t annoy you greatly.
No, what really gets to people is when they hear things like:
So like, what’s the like, problem with using like, like this?
So I was like, no way!! And she was all like, uh, yes way!!!
(I really feel that third exclamation point was necessary.)
OK, what exactly is going here? How is like actually being used in these cases?
I suppose that in the latter sentence, was like is basically replacing said. Arguments against its use therefore tend to be along the lines of, Why not just use said? And that’s fair enough. I sometimes find myself getting a little annoyed by this usage.
At the same time though, I think it is a little bit different from said. When people use like in this way, they’re usually not recounting someone’s exact words. Instead, they’re giving a sense of what was said, of the feeling behind it. Using like in this context is therefore actually fairly appropriate. We’re saying that we said something like this, but obviously not exactly like this. It’s an approximation of what we said.
Of course the counter-argument to this would be, Well, why not say exactly what you said? You’ve got the words to do that, so use them!
Well, yes, but do we always need to spell everything out so clearly? Sometimes the emotion behind what was said is more important than the specific words. And sometimes that can be more effective. There’s a big difference between:
I was like, WHOA!
I was really surprised.
The latter might be too formal for a conversation between friends, and doesn’t convey the tone of the moment. Plus, it’s often difficult to remember even parts of a conversation word for word.
But like, using like in this way is like, totally indefensible, isn’t it? Well, if you believe so, then the question I’d ask is: why? What’s actually detrimental about the use of like here? If you, like, took all the like, like‘s out of this sentence, it’d still be like, comprehensible. It’s not really a sign of being inarticulate then, as people using like in this way are usually adding it to an already complete sentence.
Why not then, you interrupt AGAIN, just use the sentence without the like‘s at all, like a normal person like me!? That’s a fair question, but, even if you never use like in this way, which I can believe, haven’t you ever added well to a sentence that worked perfectly fine without it? Haven’t you ever begun a sentence with so, or right, or OK? Not even added an um or an ah or an er here or there?
I bet you have, and that’s OK! These are what we call fillers, and we all use them all the time, usually unconsciously, and usually to give us a moment to think of what we want to say. So if most of us have no problem with um‘s and er‘s, why the hue and cry about like?
I think one of the main reasons is that, for those of us of a slightly more mature vintage, it’s not our filler. We were happy using well or so. When young whippersnappers started using like as a filler, it activated the irrational part of the brain that doesn’t like when people do things differently from us. And it also probably sets off an alarm in the young people are using language differently and that means you’re becoming obsolete centre too.
Added to this is the tendency a lot of us have to dislike when a word with pre-existing meanings is given a new one. This also explains why a lot of people don’t like beginning a sentence with so, as it assumes a relationship with a previous statement which doesn’t always exist. But this is something that happens all the time. I’m sure some of the people who hate like being used as a filler use it as a conjunction meaning as if, even though others frown upon that as a modern, 500-year old development.
And I think the old transatlantic divide is relevant. Many English speakers outside of North America don’t like to hear their youth use like as a filler, as they see it as filthy Americanism intruding upon “proper” English. We’re all understandably tribal about our English, but I’ve already written about how Americanisms aren’t really anything to worry about.
And finally, it’s important to acknowledge that most of us hate like because teenagers use it. They’re annoying, even though it’s not their fault (in neurological terms, it really is just a phase they’re going through). But really, is there any worth in expending mental effort on getting annoyed at how teenagers use language? They’ll grow out of it in a few years, and teenagers have always talked like idiots. Think back to your adolescent years: you know it to be true.
If you still want to hate like as a filler, that’s fine. We all have our pet peeves. But I would ask you though to consider how threatening it really is. If you ask me, it could be like, totally worse!