28 January 2012

“I’m like, ‘Whaddaya mean, like, a verbal tic?’”

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Is it only teens and young adults who commit this crime against the English language, or has the latest substitute for “I said” spread to the general population?

Normal English:
“He said, ‘Lady, you can’t go in there,’ and I said, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

Current parlance:
“He’s like, ‘You can’t go in there,’ and I’m like, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

I’m not sure exactly when “like” became a placeholder to be used indiscriminately between any two spoken words, regardless of part of speech, but it’s become, like, universal. This is not to say that mangled English is a new phenomenon. When I was growing up in Queens in the 1950s, I had friends whose anecdotal style included similar locutions:

“He sez, ‘You can’t go in there!” So far, indistinguishable in speech from the grammatically acceptable historic present “He says.” But then, the giveaway:
“So I sez, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

More extreme:
“He goes, ‘You can’t go in there!’ So I go, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

I personally never let either “He goes” or “I sez” pass my lips. My mother woulda, like, killed me. Throughout my childhood, one of her friends liked to tell about an incident from when I was maybe four. She responded to some question of mine by saying “Yeah,” and I, little prig that I must have been, announced, “My mother pronounces it ‘Yes.’”

But the egregious “like” is a persistent verbal tic that I can’t claim I’m never guilty of using. In that, it resembles the pervasive “y’know” and “I mean” that mar so many public speeches, especially the extemporaneous, uttered without reference to notes or Teleprompter. Or is it a tic? It seems to me that the insertion of “like” into a declarative sentence adds a nuance of tentativeness. When James Cameron won the Oscar for the movie Titanic, he drew worldwide disapproval for expressing his delight by throwing his arms wide and quoting a line from the film: “I’m the king of the world!” Would the media and millions of viewers been equally censorious if he had instead cried, “I’m, like, the king of the world”? Perhaps the self-deprecating “like” would have met their standards for a becoming modesty in someone who’s just won big.

For me, the frequent use of “like”—as much as several times in a single spoken sentence—damages the credibility of the speaker. Another locution, uptalk, which was most noticeable in the 1990s but has not completely vanished, also conveys the impression of uncertainty or tentativeness to the detriment of credibility, or perhaps more accurately, authority.

“I’m Liz Zelvin? Your speaker for today? I’ve been writing my whole life? I’m going to talk about how to, like, promote your book?”

It is possible to use even the most unpromising locutions effectively. I recently saw the concert movie of the TV show Glee. This show (which I haven’t watched, but might some time) has been very successful in reaching young people with its message that those who are “different” (obese, gay, born with disabilities, and a variety of other departures from the stereotype of attractive and popular teens) are worthy of love and capable of success. As a songwriter myself, I always pay close attention to lyrics. I was amused, even charmed, to realize that the refrain of one high-energy number (evidently a big hit on iTunes) was, “I’m, like, Forget you!” To a target audience of teens, that was downright clever.


  1. You're a mistress of dialogue, Elizabeth. I could hear the boroughs nasalisation coming through.

    The 60s hippies didn't help: "It's like, wow, man, like, can you dig it?" They should have been stoned.

    Oops, they already were.

  2. Clever article, Liz. We don't hear much of the "like" phenomenon around central South Carolina, and I've always associated it with the Valley Girl phase.
    Of course, we have enough on our plates trying to teach the proper use of "ya'll," which I deleted from my spoken vocabulary after watching a few (very few) Paula Deen shows.

  3. Hm. I'm all, like, trying to write YA, and I thought I, like, hadda say 'like.' Strike that, bring on the vampires.

  4. I really liked this, Liz. And I stand "guilty as charged" for using Like and Go exactly as you pointed out in your examples.

    I Particularly enjoyed your insightful suggestions concerning the impact these words have on listeners' perceptions. Seems to me, your interpretation was spot-on, yet I'd never consciously thought of that before. Thanks for pointing it out!


  5. Checking back in after spending the day at a big SCBWI (children's lit) conference. Young Adult and middle grade authors have to master the argot and use it authentically, not awkwardly, cynically, or excessively--and that brings us right back to the mysterious and unquantifiable quality of what we call voice.

  6. Ah . . . "voice!" Something which (and I hope I don't upset too many folks, here, since this is just MHO. But . . .) I think it's taught far too early -- at least in the Arizona school systems.

    They start harping on voice at the First-Grade level, here, because it's one of the quantifiers on the Arizona Instrumeent to Measure Success (AIMS) tests that kids have to pass in order to receive a high school diploma.

    Unfortunately, having 3 kids in the school system, at different levels and at different times -- I've yet to meet a public school teacher who can concisely define "voice" for me. No wonder the kids are confused by it.

  7. In case my post didn't make it clear, I'm agreeing with Liz about that:
    "mysterious and unquantifiable quality of what we call voice."

    I think it is Mysterious and Unquantifiable, and thus wonder how folks can possibly designate it as a "quantifier" on a standardized test. lol


  8. Back in the 1990s Loudon Wainwright III wrote a song called "cobwebs," which was a complaint about the misuse of a certain word, which he never mention in the song. But it is obviously "like."

  9. Hi, I stumbled across your post and I liked it so much I want to use it in the English class I teach. Is that ok? Fully referenced of course.

  10. Guy, I'd be delighted. This is a post that appeared back in January, so I hope you check back and see it's okay with me to use it in your English class. :)


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