The Meanings of “Like”

By Mark Nichol

What’s not to like about like? It’s a versatile word, but one easily misused and abused.

Like is a preposition: “He is like me in that regard”; “Like him, I fail to see the humor.” Take care to use me and us (and, in the third person, them), rather than I and we (and they) in association with it.

Like is also frequently employed as a conjunction: “Like I told you before, we’re running out of boxes”; “Like we’ve seen before, it depends on the situation”; “It looks like it’s going to rain.” However, this usage, once common, fell out of favor long ago, and it’s still considered a colloquialism that is out of place in formal writing. In each of these examples, as is the better choice. In addition, like is employed as a comparative term (“I’ve seen something like that before”) and is often seen as a substitute for “as if.” (“She looked like she might cry at any moment.”)

The word has overtaken the more formal — and, as explained below, slightly different — usage “such as” to make comparisons: “I prefer more dynamic sports like soccer,” rather than “I prefer more dynamic sports such as soccer.” The argument against considering like and “such as” interchangeable is that “such as” suggests inclusion (soccer is one of the sports the writer prefers), whereas like implies exclusion (soccer is representative of the type of sport the writer prefers but is not one of them). However, the indiscriminate appearance of either usage — and many writers, myself included, have used both in the same piece of content — is ubiquitous, and the interchangeability is unlikely to change.

Over the last few decades, the word has persisted as a filler, especially among young people (“I was, like, totally confused”), or — again, especially among younger members of the population — as a conversational substitute for said (“And he was like, ‘Go for it’”). I admit without embarrassment that although I am not young, I freely employ like in both usages — when I speak. In writing, I would use them only for humorous effect.

The first usage is adverbial, similar to colloquial usage like (I mean, “such as”) “It’s true, like enough” (as a substitute for likely). Other adverbial uses are as an alternative to altogether or rather (“All this time, I was calm, like”) or to about or nearly: “It’s more like a hundred dollars,” “It took, like, four hours.” (The latter usage is likely the inspiration for the use of like as an interjection.)

Like serves as a noun: “I’ve never met his like since”; “I have no patience with her like.” A similar usage is “the likes of”: “I hope we’ve seen the last of the likes of him.” (The sense for the latter usage, and the one previous to that, is often pejorative.) Recently, too, it has acquired the meaning of “something one likes,” such as a social-networking Web page. And, of course, it functions as a verb, meaning “To choose or prefer,” “to enjoy, or to thrive,” “to regard,” or “to want.”

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3 Responses to “The Meanings of “Like””

  • Warsaw Will

    Well done for admitting you use ‘like’ as a filler, as do many other educated speakers. Some people think this is relatively new, but I remember adopting it as part of my hippy vocabulary in the late sixties (and later trying to get rid of it). I was recently listening to a BBC comedy from 1961, and someone asked one of the characters what he was called. He replied – ‘You mean, like, what’s my name?’ I think he was meant to be a ‘hep cat’.

    One linguist has shown that ‘like’ as a filler can often be substituted with ‘if you will’. But while ‘if you will’ is popular with college professors and so respectable, ‘like’ is too often excoriated as a usage of ‘uneducated youth’ – wrong on both counts.

  • Precise Edit

    The use of “like” as a filler is inappropriate in formal writing, though it may be common in kid-speak. When I see it, I cringe.

    From my old post “It’s like my least favorite word”…

    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.

  • Warsaw Will

    @Precise Edit – Let’s put it slightly differently – ‘And I went “what’s wrong with, you know, that”, and he went “Well, I guess it’s sort of OK.” You may not like it, and I wouldn’t use it, but it no doubt makes sense, especially if we knew the context.

    While the use of “like” to mean “said” is fairly limited, to say that “like” as a filler is simply kid-speak is nonsense: I know many educated people who use it from time to time, most of them in their thirties. But I agree it’s a bit much when it’s overused, and inappropriate in formal writing, but then so are “well”, “you know” and “sort of”.

    For a merciless parody of the multiple uses of “like” check out ‘Valley Girl’ by Catherine Tate on YouTube. Warning – some strong language at the end.

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