“Like” Serves Nouns and Pronouns, Not Verbs

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Like is associated with various uncouth usages — “They were, like, all over the place”; “I was, like, ‘Really?’” — common in speech but easily avoided (except for comic effect) in writing, but many people are unaware that another widespread usage is considered improper in formal writing.

As a preposition meaning “similar to,” like is associated with nouns (“She entered the room like an empress”) and pronouns (“I don’t know anyone like him”). However, when the word connects one clause (a segment of a sentence that includes a subject and a verb) to another, it impersonates a conjunction: “He started dancing like his pants were on fire”; “I arranged the furniture like it had appeared before.”

Note, though, that this usage, though ubiquitous in conversation and in informal writing, is not considered acceptable in formal writing; like should be replaced, respectively, by “as if” (He started dancing as if his pants were on fire”) or as: (“I arranged the furniture as it had appeared before”). Replacing as with “the way” is also acceptable: “I arranged the furniture the way it had appeared before.”

(But beware of hypercorrection; as is erroneous when, with the same intent, it precedes a noun: “She entered the room as an empress” means that the subject literally became, rather than merely resembled, royalty. But “She entered the room as an empress would” is correct, because the emphasis is then on the subject’s action, not on the type of person the subject is compared to.)

In the case of a sentence such as “Like many first-time visitors do, I stared, dumbstruck, at the vista before me,” either change like to as (“As many first-time visitors do, I stared, dumbstruck, at the vista before me”) or delete the verb at the end of the introductory phrase (“Like many first-time visitors, I stared, dumbstruck, at the vista before me”).

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8 thoughts on ““Like” Serves Nouns and Pronouns, Not Verbs”

  1. Most of the points made are spot on; however, I don’t agree wholeheartedly with the example “‘She entered the room as an empress’ means that the subject literally became, rather than merely resembled, royalty.”

    For those of us who have seen “My Fair Lady,” the sentence “She entered the room as a lady” is absolutely right, i.e., she’s conning the other guests into inferring that she’s a lady. She didn’t “become” a lady by virture of her entrance; she merely resembled a lady, but was deemed one by onlookers in the story, but not by the audience. It is a form of dramatic irony.

  2. @Matt: The point in “My Fair Lady” is exactly that in the eyes of the guests, she WAS a “lady.” They knew nothing different, they saw nothing different. She entered that room as a LADY! The fact that the theater audience knows the truth is totally beside the point. But the other point is that ANYONE can actually BE a lady, if she has the right knowledge and tools. She doesn’t have to be born a “lady.” That is the irony, and the exposure of the hypocrisy and superficiality of the upper class.
    @Mark: Nice post, good refresher. I am quite aware of it after having it beaten into my head by my mother, and I still feel a bit self-conscious when I say it correctly (using “as if”), as if I’m being a bit, um, snooty.

  3. The hideousness of using “like” has been enhanced by the inclusion of “what” as in “I did it like what I used to”. Is this a peculiarly Australian phenomenon? “As if” has taken on a whole new meaning (most likely by those using “like what”) when used as a retort, eg. “You are not going out until you have tidied your room.” “As if!”

  4. @thebluebird11. I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Liza was certainly not a lady; however, before you dispute my assertion, bear in mind that “My Fair Lady” took place in Edwardian England, i.e., in the first decade of the 20th century.

    The term “lady” is one of peerage. Being deemed a “lady” at that time had nothing whatsoever to do with knowledge or tools. To be a lady in the context of the British Peerage—the element spoofed by Shaw’s original play and by the subsequent musical, does indeed mean that one must either be born into a noble family or marry a peer (other than a Duke—a duchess is not referred to as “Lady XYZ”). So, when Eliza entered the room as a lady, she took on the mantle of nobility, a mantle she did not merit. She was not a lady as defined by the people she conned into thinking she was a lady, i.e., nobility.

    Don’t confuse our contemporary definition of lady with lady as defined by the British Peerage—certainly there’s some overlap, but, truth be told, it’s marginal and, frequently, accidental.

  5. Thank you for the article about using “like.” I keep editing that word out when it’s used by someone else as a conjunction, changing it to “as if”, but I haven’t had any authority for doing that. It just sounds right to me.

  6. @Joan Carter: I still don’t know what the authority for it is. I, too, have always heard the rule and I know editors will usually strike it from any formal writing. But the fact is I don’t know why. So far as I can tell, *like* has been used with verbs in the “informal” context for eons. I really don’t know where this rule comes from.

    @Matt Gaffney: I agree that Miss Doolittle was not a lady in any technical sense of the word. But I think saying “…as a lady” instead of “…like a lady” (which I think is fine) makes it sound like she had, in fact, somehow transubstantiated into one. Here’s a case where I think using “like” with the verb “entered” is actually preferable to saying “as”. Of course lengthening it to “as if she were a lady” avoids the whole problem with a blast of clarity.

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