Don’t Let ‘Like’ Clutter Conversations

Image of Thumbs down to using words such as 'like" too muchI love it when friends and colleagues send me articles on language or punctuation that appear in national publications. It helps reinforce that as a ruthless editor, I’m not a lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to considering “proper” grammar important.

In a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Barton Swaim lamented the decline of language use, in particular abuse of the word like. “It has become an all-purpose seasoning,” he writes, providing this example:

“He’s not, like, very happy about it, and, like, I’m not either, because, like, the whole thing is, like, irrational.”

For those who think like is a modern-day verbal tic, think again. Swaim points out that a Scottish novelist who grew up in the 1930s recalls the speaking style of someone she knew:

“The word ‘like’ peppered her conversation. ‘My bother, like, wouldn’t go, like, any further with that, like …'”

An installment of The Grammarphobia Blog cites research confirming use of like all the way back to 1513: “Yon man is lyke out of his mynd,” from a poem by William Dunbar.

Those who reject the concept of grammatical “correctness” — those who think anything goes — are sometimes called descriptivists. Swaim points out that members of their camp might not object to the habit of injecting like every few words, even though they themselves would never do it.

Prescriptivists, writes Swaim (You probably can guess that I’m in this camp), “want to know what is correct and incorrect, and we would happily abide by a new rule governing the use of ‘like’ if we thought educated people took the rule seriously.”

Swaim adds that like sometimes is a substitute for said:

He’s like, “Did you go to a movie last night?” and I’m like, “No, I ended up having to work.”

I agree with Swaim when he observes, “Many young people — and a lot of middle-age people too — find it impossible to get through a sentence without saying ‘like’ repeatedly and for no reason at all.”

It’s so pervasive that I suspect even I probably throw in an objectionable like from time to time.

If you are in the habit of weaving like repeatedly into conversations or using it even when another word would be more appropriate, you maybe hang with descriptivists who don’t mind.

But if you are in the presence of prescriptivists, it’s possible that the constant appearance of like so distracts your listeners that they form a negative opinion of you and maybe even give up trying to follow the conversation.

And if you use that speaking style in the workplace, it could jeopardize your professional success.

Do you hear other words or phrases that add nothing to conversations, but that appear so often that they become distracting? Please share!

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)