Filed under:

Karen Virag

GETTABLE GRAMMAR: Learning to like “like”

Colour portrait of Dr. Edwin Battistella, dressed in a shirt and sports jacket with arms open, likely delivering a lecture.
Black-and-white portrait of R. W. Burchfield, author of New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a distinguished-looking older man in a suit and tie with large, black-rimmed glasses, sitting in front of a bookshelf filled with books.
R. W. Burchfield

One often hears complaints about how some people litter their sentences with the word like—not as a noun, verb, preposition or conjunction, but as, like, an interjection. Like that. Now I know that Canadians like to blame Americans for all the world’s ills, but we can’t really lay this verbal tic at the feet of California Valley Girls, as some have done. As R.W. Burchfield tells us in the New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, like as an interjection (or as he calls it, a dialectical filler), is pretty old. He identifies the first written instance of it in the 1778 novel Evelina, by the English novelist Fanny Burney. And he also cites the use of like as interjection by such well-considered writers as Sir Walter Scott and de Quincy.

In the online language magazine Vocabula Review, Edwin Battistella, a professor of English and writing at Southern Oregon University, speaks up for like:

Grammarians have started to recognize a system to like. It can be used to indicate approximation. Reporting on a number of dollars, someone might say that “Gas is like $3.50 a gallon.” Maybe it’s a little more or a little less, but that is the ballpark figure. “She has like a thousand books” means the speaker is estimating rather than counting. Without the like, the sentences are misleading because the numbers are not intended to be definitive.

Colour portrait of Dr. Edwin Battistella, dressed in a shirt and sports jacket with arms open, likely delivering a lecture.
Edwin Battistella

This is all fine and good, but what about when the phrase be like is used as an equivalent of said? Everyone has heard conversations like, “So, I’m like, ‘I’m not going,’ and he’s like ‘Yes, you are,’ so I’m like, ‘No way,’ and he’s like ‘Yes way.’” The grammarian Bryan Garner calls this use of like a “low casualism” and notes that though it is ubiquitous among teenagers it is a sign of “arrested development” in adults. Ouch! I say this because I occasionally use like as described above, though not in such an egregiously  teenagerish way.

Maybe the problem is not the occasional such use of like but the overuse (which, let’s be fair, can happen with other words and phrases, such as right, you know, sort of and okay). In fact, I suspect that the chances of there being many people who ever have a like-free day is, as they might say in Old Blighty, not bloody likely.

Gettable Grammar is a monthly series of conjectures, opinions and postulates by Karen Virag.

Previous post: Things that dangle

Next post: Whom, don’t leave us! We hardly knew ye!

2 Comments on “GETTABLE GRAMMAR: Learning to like “like””

  • Anita Jenkins


    “Arrested development,” indeed. Who are these people? Slang and “casualism” is often banal and a sign of a limited vocabulary or not taking time to think, but humans are banal etc. Slang is also very rich and something most of us enjoy using. The language snobs will always be with us.

  • Debra Huron


    The word that I find is being interjected into sentences by many thousands of English speakers these days is “so.”
    It shows up at the beginning of sentences. Is it a replacement for “um” or is it a verbal pebble tossed into the sentence to begin the rippling of words to follow?
    I find that academics, in particular, are using “so” to begin sentences.
    So, is it annoying?
    So, will it soon find its way into written English?

Comments are closed.

To top