Linguist says you can use “like” more. He’s, like, wrong

Is it an irritating verbal tick young people can't control, or a legitimate use of language?

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If you are under the age of 45, chances are that at some point somebody over the age of 45 has condemned your alleged overuse of the word “like”. This person may or may not have said it politely. He or she may have been motivated by an altruistic desire to make you look respectable to others, a self-interested impulse to stop you from irritating them, or something in between. Either way, how we use “like” is one of the most gaping generational divides this side of those who ask, “Did you get my email?” (Of course we got your email – it’s an email, and you sent it! – we’ve just been busy.)

But a new essay by someone who is both a linguistics expert and, at least as importantly, over 45 suggests that “like” ought not to be maligned. “I had hit upon the answer to a question that had been puzzling me for years,” writes Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College and – wait for it – executive director of the American Dialect Society. “Why is it that so many of us nowadays say ‘like’ (preceded by a form of ‘be’) to introduce something somebody said or thought?” (By “a form of ‘be,’” Metcalf means various conjugations of the verb “to be”: is, was, are, etcetera.)

The answer, according to linguistical science, is this:

This use of “like” allows us to introduce not just what we said or thought, but how. Instead of merely saying words, “like” with “be” allows us to enact the scene. And that, I think, is because it’s an extension of a longstanding use of “like” to indicate manner: March came in like a lion, He raged like a madman.

For example, I could be telling a story, and say, “I had a lot to do today. But my editor was like, we really need you to write a blog post. So I was like, okay, I’ll find something to write about.” Note that the “be” verb, in this case “was,” + “like” translates to a more dramatic version of “said,” perhaps expressing my feeling of being put-upon by my editor.

Having explained this usage of “like,” Metcalf goes on to be like: it’s totally okay! “I finally understand the difference between plain ‘I said I would’ and ‘I was like, I would!’” he concludes. “And now I understand why we need the latter for the moments when we need to show as well as tell.”

But is Metcalf right? Here I have to put on my fogey hat – not to mention be a pretty big hypocrite, for I am a prolific deployer of the Metcalfian “like” – and be like, no, we still use “like” too much.

For one thing, we don’t always use “like” with such high-minded intentions. Take the example Metcalf offers, perhaps the ur-moment of “like,” Frank Zappa’s 1982 hit “Valley Girl”:

So like I go into this like salon place, y’know                                
And I wanted like to get my toenails done                               
And the lady like goes, oh my god, your toenails                               
Are like so grody                               
It was like really embarrassing                               
She’s like oh my god, like bag those toenails                               
I’m like sure                               
She goes, I don’t know if I can handle this, y’know.                               
I was like really embarrassed.                               

This is a hyperbolic but accurate depiction of the way “like” is used by my cohort (and several other cohorts, too). In some place, it is Metcalfian: “She’s like oh my god,” means, “She said, ‘oh my god,’” and there is maybe some coloring of the way in which she said it. But consider just the next clause: “like bag those toenails.” The “like” is expressing something, but it is a third, still-vaguer sentiment – probably hesitance on the part of the speaker even to bring it up. (Such hesitance would be understandable: I mean, like, bag those toenails!)

But if “like” in the non-dictionary sense is best for conveying tone, well, then we’ve really run into the basic contradiction behind it: It is a word only used in verbal speech that gets across the very thing verbal speech is best at getting across without extra words. The quotation above, after all, comes from a song and is mimicking the way Valley Girls talked. When it is written, such as in David Foster Wallace’s writing, it is precisely to express the kind of vernacular that crops up when people converse face-to-face rather than via writing. And this goes both for that tertiary form of “like” – “like bag those toenails” – and even the Metcalfian “like,” in which it is a transitive verb whose only advantage over “to say” is tone.

Plus, saying “like” too much sounds bad to people over 45 – or so I’m told – and these people may include your bosses and your parents, two types of people whom you want to, well, like you. With due respect to Professor Metcalf, we should try to keep our likes confined to the traditional usage. And, I guess, to Facebook.

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Maybe your "likes" should stay on Facebook. Photo: Getty
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“You’re a big corporate man” The Apprentice 2015 blog: series 11, episode 8

The candidates upset some children.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read up on episode 7 here.

“I don’t have children and I don’t like them,” warns Selina.

An apt starting pistol for the candidates – usually so shielded from the spontaneity, joy and hope of youth by their childproof polyester uniforms – to organise children’s parties. Apparently that’s a thing now. Getting strangers in suits to organise your child’s birthday party. Outsourcing love. G4S Laser Quest. Abellio go-carting. Serco wendy houses.

Gary the supermarket stooge is project manager of team Versatile again, and Selina the child hater takes charge of team Connexus. They are each made to speak to an unhappy-looking child about the compromised fun they will be able to supply for an extortionate fee on their special days.

“So are you into like hair products and make-up?” Selina spouts at her client, who isn’t.

“Yeah, fantastic,” is Gary’s rather enthusiastic response to the mother of his client’s warning that she has a severe nut allergy.

Little Jamal is taken with his friends on an outdoor activity day by Gary’s team. This consists of wearing harnesses, standing in a line, and listening to a perpetual health and safety drill from fun young David. “Slow down, please, don’t move anywhere,” he cries, like a sad elf attempting to direct a fire drill. “Some people do call me Gary the Giraffe,” adds Gary, in a gloomy tone of voice that suggests the next half of his sentence will be, “because my tongue is black with decay”.

Selina’s team has more trouble organising Nicole’s party because they forgot to ask for her contact details. “Were we supposed to get her number or something?” asks Selina.

“Do you have the Yellow Pages?” replies Vana. Which is The Apprentice answer for everything. Smartphones are only to be used to put on loudspeaker and shout down in a frenzy.

Eventually, they get in touch, and take Nicole and pals to a sports centre in east London. I know! Sporty! And female! Bloody hell, someone organise a quaint afternoon tea for her and shower her with glitter to make her normal. Quick! Selina actually does this, cutting to a clip of Vana and Richard resentfully erecting macaroons. Selina also insists on glitter to decorate party bags full of the most gendered, pointless tat seed capital can buy.

“You’re breaking my heart,” whines Richard the Austerity Chancellor when he’s told each party bag will cost £10. “What are we putting in there – diamond rings?” Just a warning to all you ladies out there – if Richard proposes, don’t say yes.

They bundle Nicole and friends into a pink bus, for the section of her party themed around the Labour party’s failed general election campaign, and Brett valiantly screeches Hit Me Baby One More Time down the microphone to keep them entertained.

Meanwhile on the other team, Gary is quietly demonstrating glowsticks to some bored 11-year-old boys. “David, we need to get the atmosphere going,” he warns. “Ermmmmm,” says David, before misquoting the Hokey Cokey out of sheer stress.

Charleine is organising a birthday cake for Jamal. “May contain nuts,” she smiles, proudly. “Well done, Charleine, good job,” says Joseph. Not even sarcastically.

Jamal’s mother is isolated from the party and sits on a faraway bench, observing her beloved son’s birthday celebrations from a safe distance, while the team attempts to work out if there are nuts in the birthday cake.

Richard has his own culinary woes at Nicole’s party, managing both to burn and undercook burgers for the stingy barbecue he’s insisted on overriding the afternoon tea. Vana runs around helping him and picking up the pieces like a junior chef with an incompetent Gordon Ramsay. “Vana is his slave,” comments Claude, who clearly remains unsure of how to insult the candidates and must draw on his dangerously rose-tinted view of the history of oppression.

Versatile – the team that laid on some glowstick banter and a melted inky mess of iron-on photo transfers on t-shirts for Jamal and his bored friends – unsurprisingly loses. This leads to some vintage Apprentice-isms in The Bridge café, His Lordship's official caterer to losing candidates. “I don’t want to dance around a bush,” says one. “A lot of people are going to point the finger at myself,” says another’s self.

In an UNPRECEDENTED move, Lord Sugar decides to keep all four losing team members in the boardroom. He runs through how rubbish they all are. “Joseph, I do believe there has been some responsibility for you on this task.” And “David, I do believe that today you’ve got a lot to answer to.”

Lord Sugar, I do believe you’re dancing around a bush here. Who’s for the chop? It’s wee David, of course, the only nice one left.

But this doesn’t stop Sugar voicing his concern about the project manager. “I’m worried about you, Gary,” he says. “You’re a big corporate man.” Because if there’s any demographic in society for whom we should be worried, it’s them.

Candidates to watch:


Hanging on in there by his whiskers.


Far less verbose when he’s doing enforced karaoke.


She’ll ruin your party.

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here for the previous episode blog. The Apprentice airs weekly at 9pm, Wednesday night on BBC One.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.