Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 8, No. 5, 2009
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dubé
Sylvain Richard
David Solway
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Diane Gordon
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somverville
David Solway
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

you might, like, get used to, if not like the overuse of “like”


Howard Richler



Howard Richler is the author of The Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes,Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, and Can I Have a Word with You? His next book, Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words, will be published by Ronsdale Press in March 2010.

“When I told him, he got, like, so mad.”

“I want to get a car that’s really, like, fast.”

“I know, like, what’s that about anyway? I can’t believe that she would even, like, say that to you! Like, I just don’t get some people.”

In promoting my book Take My Words some years ago, I was the guest “expert” on several radio call-in programs. The theme of these programs was the ever popular whinge, “What are your pet peeves about the English language?” Callers vented their spleen on their most disliked usages, such as the word “hopefully,” “I could care less, ”split infinitives, using “who” in place of “whom,” etc. By and large, I explained that it was not altogether clear that there was anything wrong with the usages they loathed. As writer Anthony Burgess said in his book A Mouthful of Air “the emotions aroused by group loyalty obstruct the making of objective judgments about language. When we think we are making such a judgment, we are merely making a statement about our prejudices.”

The number one hated usage was the word “like” as in the trio of examples provided by my peeved listeners listed at the start of this article. Given that most of the people who phoned to sound off were over forty, recent research by University of Toronto linguistics professor Sali Tagliamonte bears out that the usage of “like” is an age marker. Her study showed that the use of “like” in telling a story was found in 65% of 17-19-year-olds, 29% among 30-34- year-olds, 18% among 35-49- year olds, and 0% among octogenarians. According to Tagliamonte, the use of “like” to narrate a story arose in “California in the 1980s and it gained prestige as a trendy and socially desirable way to voice a speaker's inner experience.”

However, the re-creating of language by the young is hardly a new phenomenon. Connie Eble in Slang and Sociability points out that even during the Middle Ages when young students flocked to academies in Paris and Bologna that they changed language to strengthen group identity and to set themselves apart from others.

While I was unable to offer the radio callers any cogent defense of the viral spread of “like,” many linguists see nothing wrong with it. Tagliamonte claims that it doesn’t “reflect stupidity or poor grammar -- it is merely a recent linguistic fact.” She told me that those students prone to its use do as well academically as those that do not. Linguist Marcel Danesi provides an even more spirited advocacy of “like” in his book Cool: the Signs and Meanings of Adolescence. Danesi says that while the liberal usage of “like” is disparaged by many grammarians, he believes it “actually improves the rhythms of English by making our language flow in a manner similar to the Romance languages.” According to Danesi, “like” is a functional word because it gives the speaker slightly more time to formulate thoughts.

A short video at underlines the versatility of “like.” It acts as a “quotative complementizer” that highlights quotations in a retold conversation, e.g., “She was like you should totally buy that dress but I wish it came in black.” Also, it serves as an “approximate adverb” in expressions such as “It was like 140 degrees. I thought I was going to die.” While the mercury didn’t reach 140, the use of “like” stresses that it was unbearably hot. More obviously, it is also considered a “discourse marker” in introducing similes such as “he eats like a pig.”

Notice, however that in the above examples the use of “like” occurs only once in a statement. Invariably, though we are assailed by a cacophony of “likes,” like in “I know, like, what's that about anyway? I can’t believe that she would even, like, say that to you! Like, I just don’t get some people.”

And while this emotive way of talking may have its place and function among the young, I would hope that it dissipates once a person becomes a member of a largely non-pre-pubescent workplace. Perhaps, as Burgess might say, I am merely expressing my own prejudice, but I believe that by the age of thirty a person can transcend the rampant use of “like” and be able to express himself or herself in more nuanced and reasoned terms.

After all English possesses the largest vocabulary of any language, so, like, why not use it?

For more of Howard Richler at Arts & Opinion:
Can I Have a Word With You

The Significant Other Conundrum

The Oxfordization of Poutine = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
Film Ratings Page of Sylvain Richard, film critic at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 10-21st, (514) 844-2172
Montreal World Film Festival
CINEMANIA(Montreal) - festival de films francophone 1-11 novembre, Cinema Imperial info@514-878-0082: featuring Bernard Tavernier
Montreal Jazz Festival
Armand Vaillancourt: sculptor
Available Ad Space
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis