All About Like

By Mark Nichol

Like is one of the most versatile of words, with senses encompassing multiple parts of speech. Here’s a review of its various meanings and uses.

As a verb, like means “enjoy,” “feel affection for,” “regard favorably,” “thrive in,” or “wish to have.” It can also mean “approve” or “prefer.” The noun like refers to preference or something that one likes. In recent years, it has acquired the sense of “an acknowledgment given online in approval of content another person has posted.” The word appears as a noun in idiomatic phrases such as those in “We haven’t seen the likes of him for a long time” (meaning “Someone resembling him hasn’t been seen for a long time”) and “She’s partial to lavender and the like” (meaning “She’s partial to lavender and things that are similar to it”).

As an adjective, like means “possessing the same or similar characteristics or qualities,” as in “They finally admitted that they did not have enough like interests to sustain a relationship.” As a suffix, it has an adjectival function. Treatment depends on what precedes it. Most words with the suffix are closed, with no hyphenation, as in “birdlike movements.” However, if the base word ends with l (“the cell-like room”) or is a proper noun (“a Christ-like bearing”), employ a hyphen.

The adverb like, stands in for approximately or nearly, as in “It was more like a dark orange than a pale red.” When informally referring to measurements, the adverb is sometimes used interjectionally: “It was, like, as long as my arm” or “He seems to come around every few years, like.” Similarly, it is parenthetically employed in conversational English for emphasis (“I was, like, astonished”) or, paradoxically, to suggest an offhandedness (“They were, like, hoping somebody would offer them a ride”). Casually, it can also mean probably, as in “I’ll be there in time, like enough.”

The preposition like means “comparable,” “similar,” or “typical”; that’s the part of speech that is essential in a simile such as “The grass, ruffled by the wind, looked like a rolling wave.” As a conjunction, like means “the same as” or appears in place of “as if” (“She looked like she was about to cry”). Informally, it is employed similarly to the casual adverb to introduce a quotation, paraphrase, or thought (“He’s like ‘Don’t even think about leaving now’”) or, following it’s, to express a widely held opinion (“It’s like, it’s not going to make any difference.”)

As a preposition, like is often considered inferior to or even improper as a substitute for “such as,” but as with some other supposedly undesirable usages, this is acceptable in even formal prose.

The adjective like derives from the Old English term gelic, meaning “similar.” Most of the other parts of speech derived from this usage, but the verb stems from lician, which means “please” or “be pleasing or sufficient”; the connection is perhaps that to be sufficient is to be suitable, which is to be similar.

Words based on the root like include the following:

alike: similar
likeable: agreeable
likelihood: probability
likely: seeming to be right, suitable, or true, or very probable; also, promising or attractive
liken: compare
likeness: similarity
likes: preferences
likewise: in the same manner
liking: the action or feeling of enjoying a person, place, or thing

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2 Responses to “All About Like”

  • Sean

    “All” About Like? What about the oft-maligned usage that sits somewhere between the meaning of “say” and “think”: “So Becky was like, ‘No way.’ And I was like, ‘Way!’ In the last 20 years, this new meaning for the word “like” should also be mentioned. Though slang, it seems to serve a purpose for which no other single word suffices.

  • Precise Edit

    An old post I wrote about the slang use of “like.”

    My two favorite words are still “axiom” and “myriad.” Say them with me “ax – ee – umm” . . . “mere – ee – aaaad.” Good three-syllable words. Strong words. Words like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” Pretty words.

    But this article isn’t about my favorite words. It’s about the word I have recently decided to hate.

    Last week I was flying back from a week of grant writing assistance in Alaska. About 10 hours into my travels, I heard the young lady in the plane seat behind me say the following sentence. Read it aloud and try to guess which word is my least favorite: “Like I was like what’s wrong with like that and he was like I like guess it’s like ok.”

    If you guessed the word “ok,” you’re wrong. My new least favorite word is “like.” And she used it six times in the same sentence. Ack!

    Actually, “like” is a great word when used correctly—and sparingly. The word “like” establishes a comparison to help the reader or listener understand some topic or concept. To communicate a new idea or some characteristic, we compare the thing to something familiar.

    For example: Puppies are like five-year-old children on permanent sugar highs. Just to be clear, puppies are not really five-year-old children. They are like (i.e., similar to, resembling) five-year-old children. This is a simile. However, it is this distinction that makes the overuse of this word such a problem. If I say, “I’m like ok,” for example, then I am NOT ok. I’m only similar to “ok.”

    Sentences such as “I was like, what are you doing?” simply don’t make sense. This sentence is using “like” to create a simile, but what is being compared? Do I resemble “what are you doing?” No. When I heard that sentence I was like a dog choking on a bone.

    As I mentioned earlier, using “like” to create similes is fine when infrequent. This is not an issue with the word “like” but with similes in general. When you are communicating a complex or foreign idea, they can be useful. When you are using them for no other reason than to create an artistic effect, they are unnecessary.

    The overuse of similes is a sure sign of an amateur writer. A writer who uses too many similes is like a child drawing with only one color of crayon. Clever at first, but quickly becoming dull. An experienced, professional writer rarely needs them because he or she will have the ability to describe things as they are. Additionally, because direct similes using “like” are so obvious to the reader, and often sound forced when frequent, good writers will rely on implied similes.

    For example, the sentence, “Our chief of staff, a wolf in disguise, fired the unsuspecting clerk” compares the chief of staff to a wolf, perhaps a wolf in lamb’s wool. This is not a metaphor because it implies that the chief of staff is similar to a lion in disguise. For another example of an implied simile, the phrase “late night yawns of death” compares the process of dying in old age to the process of falling asleep. According to this implied simile, they are similar. And the writer didn’t need to use “like” even once. Yeah!

    Do I catch myself using “like” like the girl on the plane? Yes, sometimes. This abuse is so prevalent in society that it begins to sound normal, and it sometimes slithers into my speech (another implied simile). You won’t find it in my formal writing or, I hope, my formal speech. Because, like, that would be like so wrong.

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