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You might not like the overuse of “like,” but, like, get used to it

July 2009

“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!”

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,”split infinitives, using “who” in place of “whom,”etc. I explained that it was not altogether clear there was anything wrong with the usages they disliked. 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 No. 1 hated usage was the word “like,” as in the quartet of examples provided by my peeved listeners that I listed at the start of this article. Given that most of the people who phoned to vent their spleen were over 40, 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 to narrate a story was found in 65 per cent of 17 to 19 year-olds, 29 per cent of 30 to 34 year-olds and 18 per cent of 35 to 49 year-olds; among octogenarians usage was zero. 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.”

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

I was unable to offer the radio callers any cogent defence of the viral use of “like,” but 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.” Linguist Marcel Danesi provides an even more spirited defense 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.

Danesi says this emotive form of speech starts at around age 10 and he has dubbed this pre-adolescent talk as “pubilect.” Children who are approaching puberty acquire this speech pattern unconsciously from their teen peers, and Danesi calls pubilect an “emotive code with tendencies toward exaggeration especially in tone and voice modulation. Expressions such as ‘She’s faaaaar out!’ exemplify the common… pattern of overstressing highly emotional words by prolonging their tonic vowels.”

This emotive way of talking may have its place and function among the young, but I would hope that it dissipates once a person becomes a member of a largely non-emotive workplace. Perhaps, as Burgess might say, I am merely expressing my own prejudice, but I believe that by age 30 a person could 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?

Like, if you haven’t already read it,Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?



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