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.