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?

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

Maybe your "likes" should stay on Facebook. Photo: Getty
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad