Like, What’s up with Like?
Anyone who has heard English spoken in the past few decades is likely to have encountered the use of like in informal language. While often associated with the speech patterns of teenagers, the use of like is now a common feature of colloquial speech throughout the English-speaking world. However, this increased presence has not necessarily earned it greater acceptance; even individuals who frequently use the “colloquial like” tend to have negative feelings about it, viewing it as a linguistic tic or as denoting vacuity or a lack of confidence. This gives rise to the question of why these colloquial uses of like are still viewed unfavourably, even when they have become so ubiquitous. In this article, we’ll explore the various uses of like in everyday speech and see why, where like is concerned, there’s more than meets the eye.
What Are We Talking About?
Like is one of the most versatile words in the English language, functioning as a preposition, conjunction, verb, adjective, adverb, noun and suffix. But what exactly is meant by the “colloquial” uses of like?
Like as a Discourse Marker
A discourse marker is a word or phrase that organizes and connects pieces of discourse, while not necessarily changing the meaning of the sentence. Examples of discourse markers are well, yeah, let’s see or I mean. Like is a particular type of discourse marker called a “filler” that is used by speakers when they are hesitating or collecting their thoughts.
I’m okay with leaving now, but, like, if we were to leave later we would miss traffic.
You could easily replace like with well or you know in the above sentence. In this case, like doesn’t alter the meaning of the sentence, but it gives the speaker time to form the rest of the sentence. And while discourse markers such as like figure more prominently in speech, they are nevertheless an integral part of language and all languages have some form of them.
Like as a Hedge
A hedge is a word or phrase that conveys uncertainty or ambiguity, featuring especially prominently in polite language. There are a large number of hedges in English, belonging to various parts of speech such as verbs (may, might), adverbs (perhaps, somewhat) or adjectives (probable, possible). In informal language, like is frequently used adverbially as a hedge.
It was like a pink colour.
The colour in question resembled pink, but was not exactly pink.
I got home at like 6.
The speaker arrived home around 6.
I’m not, like, mad.
The speaker might be upset, but not terribly so.
In these cases, like actually serves a precise linguistic purpose: to express doubt or approximation, or to attenuate the force of the speaker’s words.
Conversely, like can be used to convey surprise or the unexpectedness of an event.
And then Maria, like, showed up!
The use of like implies that the speaker did not expect Maria to show up.
Like as a Quotative
Another common use of like is as a quotative, serving to introduce reported speech or thought. In this case, like is preceded by the verb be and replaces verbs such as say, think or tell.
I was like “What is going on?”
Then she was like “I’m not sure if I want to do that.”
When used as a quotative, like encompasses both speech and thought. For example, in the first sentence above, it is not clear whether the speaker thought or said “What is going on?”. Like introduces an element of ambiguity and is often used when the speaker doesn’t want to repeat the actual words they used, or if they want to give the impression that they said something but they actually didn’t. Replace was like with said or thought and the ambiguity is eliminated.
I said, “What is going on?”
It is not entirely surprising that a term such as like, which allows speakers to convey speech in a more general and less exact way, should have become such a prominent feature of everyday spoken language. After all, people don’t always remember what was said word-for-word in an exchange; instead they often retain a general impression of what was said or felt.
Like is also used to report speech or events in a more theatrical manner and is often accompanied by more pronounced hand or facial gestures. Sometimes, like does not even report speech or thought per se, so much as a general emotional state.
Then I was like [speaker sighs loudly].
Let’s Go Back in Time
Although often perceived as a late-20th-century phenomenon, there is some evidence to suggest that the use of like as a discourse marker and hedge is of more ancient provenance.
Some examples of like as a discourse marker and hedge have been found in the 18th and 19th centuries.1
“...he parted them, like one parted on one side of the cart, and one on the other.”
“Trial of William Ward“ (1789)
I kept all the mortgage books and was secretary for like a hundred and fifteen dollars a month.
In the 20th century, like was picked up by members of the counterculture movements of the 1950s and 1960s, who used it in their particular laid-back, hip style.
How to even begin to get it all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)
It also came to feature prominently, and somewhat ironically, in the dialogue of beatnik and hippie characters in 1960s television shows.
“Like, what happened?”
Shaggy, “Scooby Doo and a Mummy Too”. Scooby-Doo (1969)
Like rose to its current prominence starting in the late 1970s when it came to be associated with the speech of teenage girls in California’s San Fernando Valley. This sociolect, also known as “Valspeak”, was not only characterized by the use of like as a discourse marker, but also its innovative use as a quotative.2
She’s like “Oh, my God, like, bag those toenails.”
Frank Zappa, “Valley Girl” (1982)
However, while these uses of like were often mocked (as in Frank Zappa’s “Valley Girl” song), the following decades witnessed the rapid spread of the colloquial like both within and beyond the United States, to the extent that it has become a feature, to varying degrees, of all the main spoken varieties of English today.3
And while like is most commonly associated with the speech of middle-class American teens, especially female speakers, a study from the year 2000 revealed that usage was split evenly between male and female speakers.4 It is also not unusual to hear members of older generations use it. For example, in a 2020 CBS interview, former US President Barack Obama said, “There are some things I would not be doing because Michelle would leave me. She’d be like, ‘What? You’re doing what?’”.
What’s the Problem?
If the use of like is widespread in colloquial speech, and if it can convey subtle differences in meaning in certain cases, why is it viewed so negatively by so many?
For one, the excessive use of discourse markers in general is discouraged. In this respect, like isn’t treated any differently than many other discourse markers such as well or you know. Using discourse markers too frequently when speaking can project a lack of certainty or confidence, and the use of any one word too often in speech can be distracting and potentially irritating for listeners.
Moreover, in a formal or professional setting, the ability to convey one’s ideas in clear and concise language is essential. While like is useful for conveying approximation or uncertainty, both as a hedge and a quotative, this also means that it is generally not suitable for use in settings where precision and accuracy are necessary.
Like also continues to be associated with spoken language, especially the speech patterns of younger people, and like much of the informal language used by the young, it lacks prestige. What’s more, studies have shown that although people associate the use of like with qualities such as friendliness or attractiveness, they also associate it with a lack of intelligence.5 It is likely this fear of being perceived negatively that leads so many individuals who frequently use like to feel a pang of shame or guilt about it.
Just, Like, Relax
The use of like as a discourse marker, hedge or quotative in colloquial speech continues to be something of a paradox: widespread, but also frowned upon even by those who use it. However, far from being nothing more than the empty product of a vacuous mind, like can be used to organize discourse or to convey ambiguity, uncertainty, approximation or surprise. While all this is true from an academic viewpoint, it is also important to remember that language exists in a cultural and social context. The fact remains that the use of the colloquial like is still viewed by many as denoting a lack of learning, depth or savoir-faire, and it remains firmly rooted in spoken language, hardly ever making its appearance on the page except when reporting speech or thought. That being said, while it’s a good idea to keep trying to avoid like when speaking to your boss or an audience, you can probably stop beating yourself up for using it with your friends. After all, you’re not the only one doing it.
D’Arcy, Alexandra. Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context: Eight Hundred Years of LIKE. Philadelphia, John Benjamin, 2017, p.10 & 203. Retrieved November 25, 2020. ↩
D’Arcy, Alexandra. (2007). “Like and Language Ideology: Disentangling Fact from Fiction”. American Speech, 82(4). p.406. Retrieved November 25, 2020. ↩
Dailey-O’Cain, Jennifer. (2000). "The Sociolinguistic Distribution of and Attitudes Toward Focuser like and Quotative like". Journal of Sociolinguistics, 4(1). p.75. Retrieved November 26, 2020. ↩
Ibid, p.75. ↩