More, "like", usage, man.

At issue is this gem about like usage (scroll down). Cristi linked to this article and also made a comment on it that the author has responded to. What seems at issue is the use of "like" as marking the speaker as under-educated, less-worthy. The general public perception of aberrant "like" usage seems negative, but why is that?

Tangents starts with Cristi's Derrida example sentence from the previous post:
"Like, what I think Derrida is, like, meaning to say is that, like, because the tribe had naming or whatever, they had, like, differentiation, and thus, like, a type of, you know, writing, and so they weren't like, pure or whatever."
He goes on to replace the stray "likes" with "duh's" which he believes are roughly equivalent to one another in establishing a tone / context for the sentence. The results are pretty amusing:

"[Duh], what I think Derrida is, [duh], meaning to say is that, [duh], because the tribe had naming [maybe], they had, [duh], differentiation, and thus, [duh], a type of, [I dunno], writing, and so they weren't [duh], pure [maybe]."
Now, I don't think this really works. I'm reading the duhs as 'doys' like those spoken by cartoon rednecks (Cletus the slack-jawed Yokel). Now Cristi's example sentence was already a bit over the top, but this is just plain ridiculous. This doesn't even sound close to natural, so what's the point in even considering it? Well it's been considered. So consider it we will. He continues:
For curmudgeons like me, who refuse to buy into adolescent rationalizations justifying lousy habits picked up on the grade-school playground, the message has virtually the same meaning and impact before and after the "like - duh" switch.
The two sentences don't have the same impact at all. If read the way I read it, it sounds like the speaker is making a point to demonstrate how stupid they are. Reading them as pure "duhs" the sentence takes on an almost mocking tone. Because it is used so frequently and expected, "like" is also far more transparent than "duh".

What I want to call into question is this quest for false authority. Tangents takes out the stray words from the sentence (which I'll leave you to do yourself) and says:
You wouldn't believe it's the same person speaking the same words, would you? Instead of a drooling, shuckin' 'n' jivin' kid trying to bullshit his way through, suddenly we perceive a confident young adult--not eloquent, perhaps, but certainly with a functioning mind and something on it to say. (Even if he's wrong, he's stating the idea as something to be discussed, evaluated, and criticized, not dismissing it as worthless even as it leaves his lips.) Which one would you say deserves a better grade? Which one would you hire for a salaried position?
When have we determined that it is always necessary to express one's ideas with real or feigned confidence. This is absolutely related to the whole Brownworth article where the 'death of the essay' is lamented. In criticizing the blog for not being essay-like, for not possessing the same 'command of language' and 'attention to detail' of the essay, she is indirectly calling for the blog to assume these characteristics. In her view and also in Tangents', these are things that convey authority or confidence to the reader.

What both, to my mind, fail to acknowledge is that this confidence is not always there. Specifically in a classroom environment, where students are beginning to form their own opinions about complex ideas and topics (DERRIDA), there is room for a lack of confidence. The use of like creates an aura around the sentence which marks it as "tentative".

On some level, with the speaker using so many likes, they seem to be saying: "What I'm saying here is what I'm saying although it is only like what I'm thinking or could be thinking." The ability to speak in that sort of tone seems to add breathing room to class discussion. If students felt they would be immediately discredited as a "shuckin' 'n' jivin' kid trying to bullshit his way through" for using "like" they wouldn't be using it. They'd probably keep their mouths shut unless they were one-hundred percent about what they're saying.

Now, I'll agree with Tangents on one point. Speaking in this manner doesn't help with getting a job. You probably won't get the "salaried position" if you say "like" a trillion times. But the context of a job interview, a classroom, a pizza parlor etc. are all different. Different situations call for different levels of projected authority. Personally, I feel there's nothing wrong with not demonstrating complete authority in the classroom environment. Being able to speak your mind, when perhaps your ideas are not as formed as you'd like them to be opens up the learning process. It becomes much more collaborative, and the mark of a good professor is one who can guide this uneasy current of ideas down the right paths.

So, let's all lighten up. You're not an idiot for using "like" in its non-intended usage. You're just comfortable with the fact you don't have to be "in the know" all the time.


ACW said...

I have the strong impression, from listening to users of pausal "like", that it is a register rather than an inseparable part of their usage. The intent of this register, I guess, is to disclaim authority, probably in order to stay friends. Sprinkling pausal "like" through an utterance seems to disarm it of potential arrogance. It flags the utterance as something the listener is free to disagree with.

Scott said...

Absolutely! I think register is a great word, one that Cristi and I came to in a phone conversation the other night. We were talking about how in a classroom environment if a student spoke in a tone of complete authority that they'd probably be met with indignance on the part of their classmates. "That guy thinks he's so smart!" etc. etc.

ACW said...

Come to think of it, "uptalk" (use of a phrase-final rising intonation, homophonous with the interrogative contour) is probably the same thing. I wonder if the uptalk 'rises' appear in the same places pausal "like" does.

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