There are some words in the English language that are used too often and, in addition, in the wrong way. "Literally" is one of those words. "Like" is another. While the misuse of "literally" gets a lot of attention, so does the misuse of "like" and, as far as I see it, it's easier to discuss the misuse of "like." What I say about "like" generally applies to "literally" and other similar words as well. Now, before I begin, I want to make clear that as frustrating as the constant misuse of these words may be, I am not one of those persons who demand that you stop using or misusing them and I definitely do not say that if you use "like" all the time that you must be unintelligent. Plenty of really smart people use "like" all the time. Yet, if you do use "like" inappropriately, I encourage you to think for awhile about the effect of such use. I argue that the inappropriate use of "like" and other similar words harms our ability to communicate with and relate to one another.
As we all hopefully know, "like" is both a word of appreciation and comparison. When we feel appreciation or desire for something, we say that we like that something. Also, when we see similarities between two objects, we say that A is like B. That's a simile. Golden sunsets are like romantic kisses, we might say--we might say that if you aren't me and actually have a bone of romance in you. Similar to its comparison usage "like" can also stand in for the more sophisticated sounding "such as" or "in this way." These are the appropriate uses of the word "like" and if we were to count the number of times that we appropriately use the word "like" in one day, the number would be staggering. We naturally gravitate toward the things that we like and our brains are hard-wired to draw comparisons, and so we use the word quite often.
Based on the appropriate uses of the word "like," we can perhaps see why the inappropriate uses of the word are so frustrating and literally (see what I did there?) deteriorate our language. Our language, remember, is how we communicate with one another, and if we use language well--or at least not incorrectly--then we will be able to know and understand one another's thoughts and feelings. A world in which we can communicate and know and understand one another's thoughts and feelings is a much better world than one in which, even though we are talking, we still have to guess what's going on. There are three misuses of the word "like" prevalent today and one story to go with each that, hopefully, will convince you that it's much better to pay attention to our use of the word and try not to use it inappropriately--not because it annoys people, but because those who are annoyed have a legitimate concern that we can't understand one another.
Misuse 1: "Like" as Filler
This and misuse 3 probably compete for most common. For many people, this misuse is the most annoying. To a great extent I don't think it should be all that annoying because, in many ways, it's no different than saying "umm" and "uhh" frequently. When people lose their train of thought or have to pause, for whatever reason it seems natural to fill the empty space. Maybe we are worried that if we don't fill the silent space that someone will jump in and take over the airwaves. I don't know. Perhaps the most annoying speech trait is the feeling that noise needs to always be happening rather than taking a silent pause. Oh well.
My problem with "like" as filler is that, as opposed to "umm" or "uhh" or "ahh," the train of thought is often broken when "like" is used. Sure, for some people, we hear "like" used as filler and it sounds like an atom bomb exploding and we can't follow the train of thought. I do find it true, though, that even the speaker uses "like" as a filler to go from one train of thought to another as if the first train saw a dead end ahead and decided to pass the baton to a second train. In other words, the speaker is talking but then decides that what he or she is saying is not really what they want to say, so they then say "like" and jump right into another train of thought with no pause or break. Often, this results in very little being said and frustration all around.
When I was in college, I took a class on modern literature and media ("modern" meaning after the 1500's). In this class, our professor asked a fellow student how Jane Austen or Mary Shelley may be seen as transitional figures between authors like Swift or Defoe from an earlier period and some contemporary films that we had seen. Her response, which I remember because I wrote it down: "Mr. Darcy in Austen's novel is like a character that, like, take Frankenstein for example where like the man is not like a man and, like, Austen's Darcy like, Charlotte Bronte's work is like the same. If you look at it like that, compared to Defoe who, like, wrote in the earlier period that like we know isn't the same, then like, that's how Austen and like Darcy are like transitional."
Frustrating, clearly. Nothing much was said. And what was said is unclear. Of course, "like" was not used appropriately and that added to the aneurysm I almost had, but we don't even need to apply "inappropriate use" for misuse 1 to be a painful way to communicate. What I mean is that using "like" as filler isn't the real problem. Thinking that we can fill the void with a word and continue on without a clear thought having formed is the real problem.
Whether "like" or "umm" is the culprit, the best thing to do is to slow down. Think through a statement before you start. If we want to communicate we have to know where we are going to end before we begin, otherwise our speech may very well meander into an unknown that either forces us to start over or implicates us in a statement that we don't approve.
Misuse 2: "Like" as Guess
No one who uses "like" as a guess thinks that they are guessing. Well, maybe they do, but often the guess misuse is employed when the speaker feels fairly certain. The problem with using "like" in its guess form is that the listener can't be sure what's going on. "Is it certain or are we comparing?" we might ask. Often "like" is entirely unnecessary when it's used in guess form.
For instance, I once heard a friend begin a story this way: "I was like nine years old..." The question here was, "Were you nine years old? Or were you acting as if you were nine years old?" I know lots of people over the age of thirty--over the age of fifty, even--who act like they are nine years old. They may have acted that way when they actually were nine years old, too. Let's pretend this is the same story: I also once heard a friend begin a story this way: "I was at, like, the grocery store, when I saw so and so..." Well, in this case "like" may have been filler as my friend tried to recall where exactly he saw so and so, but in context it appeared to be a guess. Again the question we might ask, "Were you at the grocery store? Or were you somewhere similar to the grocery store? And what would you mean by a location similar to the grocery store? Was it a farm because there was food around? Was it a laboratory because of the bright lights? Was it a museum because of all the people walking around not knowing what they are looking at? Where the frick were you?" In both these cases the context of the rest of the story didn't clarify the question. Even if the rest of the story did answer the question, you as the listener have to sit there wondering what the actual setting of the story is when you should be listening, so whether you like it or not you won't catch quite as much of what the speaker is saying.
And as you can see, the word "like" is unnecessary here. If the speaker is certain then "like" brings in an element of uncertainty that can break down communication or, at least, impair communication because rather than listening you are wondering what's really happening. If the speaker is not uncertain when "like" is used, then a word like "around" might be useful here, in the first case; or in the second case, as with misuse 1, a simple pause or thoughtful reflection before starting the story so that we can get the details right might be useful.
"Like" as guess is easily avoidable.
Misuse 3: "Like" instead of "Say"
The last misuse competes, as I've said, with misuse 1 for most common. When telling stories, people often replace the word "say," or "said," or its relatives with "like." Or more specifically, "was like" is often the replacement. This is unfortunate partly because "say" has so many relatives: "respond," "announce," "answer," "exclaim," "tell," "reply," "mention," "declare." Those are the ones that pop into my head right now. All of them add some detail and emotion to our rehearsal of another person's comments ("rehearse" and "comment" are also relatives) because they have unique meanings, though related. In contrast, saying, "He was like..." when we mean to say, "He shouted at me..." limits the detail and emotion of our words.
Our use of "was like" and therefore limiting detail and emotion, because we remove any unique meaning that a "say" relative could contribute, is fairly ironic because usually those people who say, "he was like..." are trying to be extra emotional in their telling of the story. But when we start yelling and shouting during our recital of a story and then say, "He was like..." rather than using "yelled" or "shouted," for example, the listener is unclear whether it's just the speaker who is emotional or if the experience being recounted itself was emotional. If, for instance, we are trying to recount an ex-girlfriend breaking up with us, and we say, "AND THEN SHE WAS LIKE, I DON'T LIKE YOU ANY MORE," well then, how is the listener supposed to know if we are shouting because we're upset or because that's how the ex-girlfriend sounded when saying, "I don't like you any more." Form and content need to match or else the listener is confused. And if the listener isn't confused then they will forever be biased because they will think that the ex-girlfriend shouted when, perhaps, she did not.
Another problem with "was like" instead of "say" and its relatives is similar to misuse 2: are we saying that the person said something or somehow acted as if they said something. Again, if we take the above example, if we say, "and then she was like, I don't like you any more," how are we supposed to know if that's what the ex-girlfriend actually said? Perhaps that's a summary or, worse, the feeling that we had. We can't know what the real or intended meaning of "was like..." is. And if we can't know then we as the listener have to guess at a meaning or ask awkward questions such as, "Is that really what she said?" If we guess at a meaning then we might be wrong and do an injustice as a listener (not understanding the way the speaker wants us to) and if we ask the awkward question then we are hurting feelings.
I propose, though, that those who use "was like..." will answer "is that really what she said?" in the affirmative even if they only used "was like..." as an approximation. Our translation of events and experiences into words defines that event and experience for us, I suggest. Once we have defined an event or experience with words it will take some serious soul-searching to re-translate the experience to align more fully with the truth of the event. Imagine that I walk up to someone's house, knock on the door, and ask if I can use their phone, and then her or his response to me is, "I'd rather not right at this moment. Maybe later." If I come away from that saying, "And he was like, I don't help worthless people," and that becomes my story, then it will take me a lot of work to remember what was actually said and that what was actually said is, truthfully, quite harmless--maybe he or she had a family emergency going on inside the house. While we do not create truth and reality for ourselves, we do define truth and reality for ourselves. Defining truth and reality is a hefty responsibility, especially when our definition of truth and reality relates to our interaction with others. The least we can do to live up to that responsibility is not use, "was like..." when we mean, "say," "declare," "affirm," etc.
The example that I've used in this latter section, "AND THEN SHE WAS LIKE, I DON'T LIKE YOU ANY MORE," is an example from my own life. There was a time when I used "like" diligently. I more or less screamed those words to a friend when a girlfriend broke up with me. I then went on to say a bunch of other things: "And I was like, you can't leave me or I will die," "And SHE was like, you're an idiot for even thinking that," "And I was like, you're the only person I will ever love, don't you see that?" and, "Then she was like, I don't have time for any of this." The thing about this whole story that I told is that none of it happened the way my "was likes" made it appear. It took me many months to realize that the way I was telling the story made it hurt more and I needed to rein myself in with greater accuracy of words. If I were to retell the story: "She very calmly sat me down and said, 'John, I don't think we are going to work as a couple forever. I think you know that, too, and I also think neither one of us wants to waste time fooling ourselves.' I then started crying. In between tear showers I said, "I feel like I'm going to die.' She chuckled a little but I should have known she meant it to be comforting because she then put her hand on my knee and responded, 'You know that's not true. You will survive.' By this point I was unintelligible. I couldn't talk but hoped that she saw how much I loved her by how much I was crying. So she patted me on the shoulder, got up while saying, 'Okay. I'll leave you alone for now. Take care,' and then she left." That's what actually happened.
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I hope you see how harmful a misused "like" is to your communication efforts. And I hope you understand that without the ability to communicate clearly we are more likely to argue and fight or, at least, rehash conversations two or three or four times before we understand one another. I also hope you understand that misusing "like" doesn't do you any favors in understanding your own life. I once used "like" a lot, too, but we can re-teach ourselves to use words appropriately and communicate more clearly.