Though the English language contains many unsavory four-letter words, perhaps the one with the worst reputation is “like”. Indeed, there’s no faster way to make yourself seem vapid or incompetent than to constantly utter the word “like” in your conversations. Though “like” has many accepted uses, most people think that misusing it is a sure-fire indicator that you’re, like, kind of stupid.
But “like” is more than a meaningless filler that indicates stupidity. In fact, the word “like” has evolved to take on a variety of uses that are not only useful, but also semantically rich. Moreover, the word “like” fills lexical gaps in the English language, conveying sentiments that its alternatives simply can’t express. Let’s review some of the uses of the word “like” to show that it’s not so bad after all.
The characters in the movie “Clueless” often use the word “like” to achieve a comical effect. Image via Mentalfloss
The Many Meanings of “Like”
- I’m like, “It’s a really versatile way to quote people.”
One of the most common uses of the word “like” is a quotative: it can be used in lieu of words such as “say”. However, rather than indicating a direct quotation, “like” expresses the general feeling of something that was said. For example, in the following quote, we understand that the speaker is paraphrasing or summarizing:
– What’s that famous scene in Romeo & Juliet when Juliet leans out a window and is like, “Romeo, where did you go?”
This takes the pressure off the speaker to provide a word-for-word transliteration of what was said. It also allows us to editorialize: we can imbue our quotations with our own thoughts or feelings about a given situation, as in the following:
– I can’t believe I’m failing physics. I tried to talk to my professor about it but he just looked at me and was like, “I’m literally a demon and I feel no remorse for ruining your GPA.”
Finally, “like” is extremely versatile, and can be used outside of the realm of speech. It can express a variety of non-verbal situations, such as somebody’s internal, unspoken thoughts:
– It was so hard to keep quiet during his speech; the whole time, I was just like, “Are you kidding me?”
You can also use “like” to express gestures, or even sounds produced by non-human entities like animals or even inanimate objects:
– When she said that, I was just like [speaker rolls eyes].
– This random cat walked up to me and was like, “Meow!” so I decided to pet it.
– My friend’s car accelerates really fast — when I put my foot on the gas pedal, it was like, “Vroom!”
- It’s used to indicate approximation, like, fifty percent of the time
Sometimes you want to convey a sentiment similar to the one expressed by the word “approximately”, but you want to avoid uttering a five-syllable word and sounding like a calculus textbook. In this case, “like” is a great option — it’s exceedingly common to use the word to offer some kind of approximation, as in the following examples:
– I think the library is, like, ten or fifteen miles from here.
– The Earth’s surface is, like, seventy percent water.
- It’s, like, the best word ever to show exaggeration
Another popular use of the word “like” is to exaggerate. Speakers use “like” to indicate that what they’re about to say is going to be an exaggeration or a hyperbole, often for comedic or dramatic effect. Here are some examples:
– I would go to the party, but I have a paper due tomorrow and it has to be, like, fifty million pages.
– I want to buy my own apartment, but I have, like, no money at all.
– When he said that to me, I, like, died.
- Sometimes it just, like, fills the silence
So far, we’ve seen that “like” has a variety of semantically meaningful uses — it can be used as a quotative, it can express approximation, and it can indicate exaggeration. Alas, the people who lambast “like” for being a meaningless filler are at least partially correct. The word “like” can be used interchangeably with “um” or “uh”, as a mechanism for filling silence or buying time to plan your next words, like in the following examples:
– So, like, what do you think?
– Like … I don’t really know how to put it into words.
When did it all begin?
Strict grammarians may frown upon unconventional uses of the word “like”, but its popularity persists. Image via Pixabay
Grammar purists tend to dismiss these unconventional uses of the word “like” as a recent phenomenon, perpetuated by young, bubblegum-chewing whippersnappers intent on destroying the English language. However, it can be traced back almost one hundred years, when it appeared in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel Kidnapped: ‘What’s like wrong with him?’ said she at last.
It was also prominently featured in a 1928 New Yorker cartoon, in which two women discuss a man’s workplace, accompanied by the following test: “What’s he got — an office?” “No, he’s got like a loft.” Thus, non-conventional uses of the word “like” have been around, like, forever.
Is “Like” Really So Bad?
Language is a touchy subject — when it comes to how we speak, humans have the tendency to be staunch traditionalists. Whether it’s the use of “impact” as a verb, the popularization of “legit” as an abbreviation of “legitimate”, or saying “literally” to mean exactly the opposite of “literal”, almost everyone has at least one qualm with the directions that the English language has been taking in recent years.
Unfortunately, our petty complaints don’t change the simple fact that language evolves, whether we like it or not. Indeed, the next generation of English-speakers will grow up to think that “literally” means “figuratively”, regardless of how harshly we criticize them for it. Similarly, English speakers will continue to use “like” in unconventional ways — even as a filler! — despite admonitions from their grandparents.
However, is that really so bad? I don’t think so. Of course, we should probably keep “like” out of formal writing, such as academic papers, lawmaking, or, like, directions for performing a surgery (indeed, instructions such as “Make an incision that’s, like, an inch deep” could result in some problems). But to those who condemn the use of the word “like” simply because it’s not traditional, I’m like, “Get used to it, because language evolves, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. Try their free foreign-language level tests and check out their website for other language-learning resources. Visit their Facebook page or contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.