You won’t have learned it in English class, but if you have chatted with an English-speaking teenage girl lately, or, better yet, overheard her talking on the phone, you’re sure to have encountered it. We’re referring to that innocuous little word “like.” Not the way the grammar books use it (“I like you” or “My love is like a red, red rose” or “It looks like rain”), but the way it is increasingly being used by native speakers, especially young, female ones — as an apparently meaningless verbal tic that infuriates parents and teachers alike. You, like, couldn’t have missed it.
“Like” has been around in various nontraditional forms for a long time, at least since a beatnik first said “Like wow, man,” back in the dim, dark 1950s. It took on a new lease of life in the mid-’80s, when the so-called valley girls of Southern California adopted it (though that is, like, so last century now). Since then, there has been a low but constant anti-“like” grumble from the language purists, who had obviously believed the trend would fade along with other risible Beat Generation utterances such as “digging it” or “it’s a gas.”
But “like” survived and spread, and now it has bobbed to the surface of public concern all over again with the publication of an article in this month’s Journal of Semantics that explains and defends the latest “nonstandard” usages. There is a twist, though, and it has the purists in a huff. The author, a U.S. university English professor with the charming name of Muffy E.A. Siegel, mounted a serious investigation into the modern forms of “like” — using her 17-year-old daughter and the daughters’ friends as her, like, guinea pigs — and concluded, to the consternation of many, that the girls’ use of the word is not so terrible after all.
Before you faint entirely away, here is the professor’s reasoning. “Like,” she says, is not just a pointless filler, like “um” or “er” or “well” or “you know.” Like them, it is rightly classified as a “discourse particle,” a grammatical nonentity. But unlike them, it can actually change a sentence’s meaning. The most important way it does this, she argues, is as a hedge or qualifier. Saying “He has six cars” is much more emphatic and specific than saying “He has, like, six cars”; in the latter case, the meaning is closer to “I don’t know exactly how many cars he has, but it sure is a lot.”
She sees the same qualifying function at work when “like” is used to warn of exaggeration (“There were like a thousand people waiting in line”), or to replace “said” with a word that suggests the quote may not be completely accurate (“He was like, that’s unmitigated rubbish”). Finally, it adds emphasis, a pause that virtually italicizes what follows it (“Ms. Siegel is so, like, open-minded for an English professor”). Her conclusion? Slang usage of “like” is here to stay whether we like it or not, because it really does have a semantic job to do. It’s time, she suggests, to give those twittering girls a break.
What is interesting about this is not so much the professor’s view as the divided reaction it has triggered among her fellow language specialists. On the whole, the linguists were excited by the very idea of a mere filler word imparting meaning, but calm about the implied blessing it extended to the airheads. “Linguists tend to be much less prescriptive than other people who look at language,” said one. By that she probably meant English teachers and grammarians, who were, predictably, horrified. Many were like, “We would prefer to see the word used as it is intended, as a proper part of speech.”
Probably this is the place to point out, for like the millionth time, that trying to pin down a living, evolving language is about as practical as King Canute’s attempt to halt the tide. “As it is intended,” when applied to grammar, always begs the unanswerable question: intended by whom? That was certainly Ms. Siegel’s response to her critics. “The language mavens always say, ‘Oh, they’re wrecking the language,’ ” she said. “And it’s always girls and working people. But languages change because they need to change. There are so many more girls and working people than there are language mavens.”
That seems to us indisputable. Except for one tiny thing. We really don’t care if teenage girls say “like” two dozen times in one conversation. We are like totally cool with that. But we must confess we are disturbed by a different, but also increasingly common, abuse of the word that Ms. Siegel never even mentions: “like” as an adverbial rather than an adjectival preposition. If you’re not sure what that is, just think how many times you’ve heard the phrase “like I said” recently. Now that’s a sign of a civilization in, like, big trouble.
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