on like usage

Since "Clueless" and before that, since "Valley Girl", it has been "like," everywhere. It's "like"; it's taken over normal sentences and caused a lot of English teachers to have some conniption "like" fits. Like a lot of words, it's wandered away from its "like," original usage and "like" is now placed in any position in a sentence where people feel "like."

And, I guess herein lies "The 'like' Question": are there rules or something that govern these seemingly abberant uses of "like"? Just examining my own "like" usage in this post so far it, "like," seems able to modify either a Verb Phrase (VP) ("so, do you like, like like him?") or a Noun Phrase (NP), and I know that it can appear, ("like" seemingly independently) at the beginning of a sentence, as in "Like, I know you're busy, but do you want to like, go to the movies?" This example also shows it, "like", splitting an infinitive, a place usually reserved for adverbs.

"Like" is used in an informal speech style, and is often associated with the types of "Clueless" girls that don't take themselves very seriously. But, i've also heard very serious male philosophy students say things like, "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." Each instance of "like" in this sentence mitigates the impact of the following phrase or word. It is the stutter-step that indicates the speaker's insecurity in the use of a word, somewhat like scare quotes.

When "like" is used to introduce a quote, the way i did in the last paragraph, or as in "He was like, 'are you, like, busy?' And I was all like, 'no, why?'" It indicates a paraphrasing. The speaker may not remember exactly what was said, but something like it.

Though the meaning of a sentence might not change with the "like" addition, its tone certainly does. It often precedes the "big words" or important concepts in a sentence, and allows the speaker to, like, fudge their usage slightly.

Here are some links to theories on the subject:
Language Log: A psycholinguistic discussion
Everything2: Like as deponent verb
Agoraphilia: Like's generation gap
Tangent's Mailbag (under "Social Issues"): a misguided attempt at categorization, and juveniles abuse language

If anyone knows of anything else out there, please let us know!


Seb, like, said...

I had an argument with a professor a week or so ago about this. I'm totally with you on the use of "like" to indicate paraphrasing or lessening intensity or showing insecurity or whatever. But what do you think of the theory of the contentless "like;" as an alternative for "ummm," like a verbal tick?

Another thing that came up in that talk: In the professor's generation, the hip "like" was "you know." So, "you know," I was wondering if it said anything about, "you know," society or whatever if one generation's language is peppered, even unconsciously, with the self-subverting "like," whereas another generation is, "like," asking for approval or, "like," making sure the listener is following or in agreement all the time. Like, you know?

P.S. I was really thrown by your writing, because I normally set off "like" with, like, two commas, I think. So it's odd reading your text, which only has the trailing comma, even after you disquote the "like"'s.

Ooh boy. That was an awkward pluralization. I'm not sure I pulled it off well....

Cristi said...

thanks for the comment, Seb!

First off, my comma usage in the post is, admittedly, inconsistent. The first paragraph, and parts of the others, were meant to be ambiguous between the "incorrect" usage of like and a more formal usage or reference to it as a word/linguistic concept. I wanted to highlight the two totally separate readings and readers' ability to distinguish between the two. Other than that, I just put commas where I thought someone would be pausing in speech - which isn't necessarily both before and after the "like," i think.

There's another post about this topic in the works that should answer, or at least address, your other questions.

P.S. awkward plurals are welcomed at Invented Usage!

Erin said...

I would refer you to Robert Underhill's 1988 article "Like Is, Like, Focus" but I can't find it posted anywhere online. He proposes that like is a discourse marker that sets off new information, or something that the speaker is unsure of, among other things.

Cristi said...

Language Log posted about this post, and included a list of their previous posts on the subject, some of which touch on Erin's idea, I believe:
Language Log

Anonymous said...

See Maggie Balistreri's book (Melville House, 2003) The Evasion-English Dictionary (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0971865973/qid=1096912998/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/103-4538161-8292631?v=glance&s=books). It gives a breakdown of about a dozen meanings of "like" and "whatever," among other evasions.

Balistreri's site is www.cafemo.com.

You can hear a clip of Balistreri interviewed on "All Things Considered," NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1492121.

She was also on C-SPAN's BookTV performing pieces from her book: www.booktv.org.

Anonymous said...

Like, whatever, man. (a 54-year-old 60's refugee trapped in a "Clueless" 21st Century.

B said...

My professor Dr. Robert Underhill wrote the first paper published on this issue. "Like is, like, focus" in 1988. It's available here:


Also, "um" is not contentless--it's rule governed much like like, or, whatever, and uh. There are separate studies examining these issue as well.

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