Like, what?

Thursday March 20 2014
by Becky

Today I want to talk to you about a rather controversial topic: the word like. You've probably heard adults and the media complain about how young people use this word. I want to give you a different perspective. Knowledge is power, you guys.

What is like?

Some uses of like are standard (e.g. I like ice cream and puppies) and some are non-standard (e.g. She was like 'I love ice cream and puppies'). The like we are talking about here is non-standard like, which means it hasn't generally been accepted as 'correct'. 'Correctness' itself is a pretty weird concept, but we'll leave that for another time.

People often think that like is a meaningless filler word similar to 'um'. Um... not true. Like has a whole bunch of meanings. Let's talk about a few.

Firstly, you can use like to introduce speech, similar to 'say'. For example “Sally said 'let's go to the beach'” and “Sally was like 'let's go to the beach'” mean pretty much the same thing. The only difference in meaning is that when you quote with like you tell the person you're talking to that you could be paraphrasing. Sally might have said “maybe we could go to the beach today” and “Sally was like 'let's go to the beach'” would still be truthful, while “Sally said 'let's go to the beach'” would be less so, because she didn't actually SAY that.

Secondly, like can mean approximately. You can say “I ran like 5km today” to mean “I ran about 5km today”. The cool thing about like though is that you could be using it to exaggerate. You're using like to tell your listener that you didn't necessarily run that far, but that it was a pretty long way.

Number three. You can also like to show that a word you're saying isn't 100% right. You might say “We went to this... like... gathering... anyway there were lots of people there...”. Here you're using like to show that 'gathering' might not be the right word, but it kind of fits.

And number four. You can use like to join two ideas together, like, you could further explain your thought (see what I did there?). Using like in this sense also tells the person you're talking to that you want to keep talking. Helpful no?

Who uses like?

Folklore will tell you that young women are the people who use this horrible, horrible word. As I'm sure you can guess, that's not exactly the whole story.

First off, people have been using non-standard like throughout the 20th century, albeit less frequently. Secondly, studies have shown people born as early as 1874 using non-standard like. So while young people might use it more these days, it's not absent before that. It is used most by people under 30 (D'Arcy 2007).

Now to gender. Public perception would have it that like is used predominately by girls. The academic literature, however, does not agree. Some studies have found that males use like more than females and some have found the opposite. Some find no difference at all. Myth=Busted.

Should I use like?

Ooo. That's a tough one. Everyone is allowed to AND SHOULD have their own opinion. We've looked at what like means, and who uses like but now I want to show you what like can do in a conversation.

The grammar police will tell you that using like makes what you say vague and inexact. This can be true. And sometimes that can be a bad thing. If you were doing an informative speech at school, for example, you probably want to be precise and clear. So using like might not be the best choice.

But. Think about how you talk to your sister, your best friend, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. You can understand each other quite well without having to explain yourself. You can say “remember when we were at that restaurant, and that guy...” and the person you're talking to will burst out laughing. You have shared experiences so you understand what the other person means without them having to be really specific.

Imagine someone says to you “and you know when you have a crush on someone and they don't know and you want them to know but not and it's like uuuuurrrrgggg”. You know what they mean right? It's a situation a lot of people find themselves it. You don't need the feeling 'uuuuurrrrgggg' explained to you.

Where am I going with this? I've shown you that you can use vague, inexact language with someone you're close to. Here vague and inexact language is a reflection of a close relationship. But. You can also use this kind of language to help CREATE this kind of relationship.

Using like as a tool in vagueness says hey, I bet we have a lot in common and therefore don't need really explicit language to understand each other, so let's not use really explicit language, and not using really explicit language will intensify our feeling of closeness.

Using vague inexact language isn't necessarily bad. Mind blown? Mine kinda is.

So, should you use like? If you want to. I spent two years of my life studying like and I still do with my friends. But I've also learned that some people will judge you for using like so if I'm at like(!) a job interview or something I'll tone it down. Some people would rather not use like at all. That's cool too. But I hope you won't judge others for it. ▼

For some thoughtful discussions of like see these articles from Vanity Fair, or Chronicle.


D'Arcy, A. (2007). Like and language ideology: Disentangling fact from fiction. American speech, 82(4), 386-419.

Terraschke, A. (2008). The use of pragmatic devices by German non-native speakers of English, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand. Unpublished PhD Thesis.

A lot of what you've read here is my perspective as the result of academic study. You can find my thesis here.

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