In Defense of “Like”

The word is, like, not as pointless as you think


As a professor and as a mother, I have weathered the word “like” for almost two decades, the length of time, by my unscientific gauge, that the word has been in popular circulation as a discourse-filler—as in: “I’m, like, happy that you got here before it, like, started to rain.” Two “likes” in one sentence may seem like an over-the-top parody of its use. It’s not.

To the uninitiated, “like” reflects a disdain for syntax and proper usage and is indicative of extreme mental laziness.  Yet, I’ve come to a more philosophical view.

The use of “like” by young people does not signal an irreversible linguistic decline. My own children have gone through phases of use. The most extreme period was in their mid-teens, with a gradual falling off after the age of 17 or so, and occasional resumptions during summer vacations or periods of stress. In the classroom, I notice that students use the word more frequently when discussions take a more personal or self-reflexive turn.

“Like” is a comfort word in some respects. It gives those who are tentative or unsure a chance to sidle into a point. It is a marker for uncertainty: “I, like, think I’m going to, like, go to medical school, only, like, I’m not really sure.” That’s qualification with a vengeance, but, then, the subject—whether to spend years in medical school followed by a career ministering to the sick—warrants such uncertainty.

“Like” is also a way to diminish or cushion the force of an idea or to acknowledge an approximation of meaning. One’s first inclination is to be annoyed that the speaker has not found a more precise word. But the right word may not exist, and the approximate word, softened or qualified by “like,” may be more precise. I used the word a while back in my course on Paradise Lost: “The thing you have to realize with Milton is that even if you don’t, like, ‘believe,’ there is a wealth of profound observation about human relationships in the poem.” Here, “like” gives the listener a bit of latitude in how to understand “believe.” It also opens up the idea of belief in a way I felt was helpful. For some, it might seem I was being sarcastic, for others that I was simply acknowledging their probable uncertainty about their own belief or the difficulty of pinning down what belief actually consists of.

Here’s another example of my own use of the word: “Paradise Lost is, like, this very action-packed, fun poem.” To say Paradise Lost is fun and action-packed without the qualifier is to trivialize it, whereas to use the qualifying “like” is to acknowledge that it is many other things besides. The “like” also begs the question of what it is that is like fun and action-packed but not exactly fun and action-packed, making the poem elude a simple definition of what it is and thereby seem even more enticing.

I have to admit that when I use “like” with my own children they accuse me of pandering to them or pretending to be cooler than I am (which is not cool at all), but they are more amused than angry and generally take my point: “It, like, hurts my feelings when you make fun of me,” I might say—which is both a self-conscious attempt to speak their language and a way of relaying the mix of genuine and mock injury I feel.

Mine are admittedly highly calculated usages of a term that is more often carelessly employed. But I think the term becomes more mannered and self-conscious as children grow more in control of their feelings and more comfortable with language. It’s also a good way to, like, ease into a conclusion.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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