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I mentioned in my previous post how we had some American friends stay with us over the summer. One of them was a teen girl who, as teens do, used “like” every now and then. A habit I soon found myself repeating.

Then I came across an interesting article on The Economist on this very subject and I started to wonder: like, where does “like” fit in? And is it useful, or simply an irritating extra word, to be cut off a sentence with the ferocity of a gardener weeding off his prized roses?

To answer that question, we must first understand the many uses of like.

Like | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

The Beatnik Like

As The Economist explains, the first kind of like, sometimes referred to as “beatnik like,” is an expression of wonderment. It is found in decades-old exclamations such as “Like, wow, man.”

This use is now considered so rare that one scholar even considers it to have been apocryphal, more ascribed to beatniks than actually uttered by them.

The Quotative Like

Another version is “quotative like”: “She was like, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes I can’.”

That was already identified in the early 1980s, associated (as so many disparaged trends are) with young women, particularly those in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. This usage won out against she goes (“She goes, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I go…”) and is now ubiquitous, and uncomplicated.

The Discourse Particle

More interesting is like’s function as what linguists call a “discourse particle.” In this role, like certainly does what some older grouches bemoan: it lets the speaker avoid committing to a statement.

If someone says, “It’s, like, five miles away”, they signal an approximation. If they say, “He’s, like, a consultant”, that shows the speaker may not know the exact word needed. Already in 1983, Lawrence Schourup, a linguist, wrapped these nuances together to suggest drily that “like is used to express a possible unspecified minor nonequivalence of what is said and what is meant.”

However, like’s functions go wider than signaling uncertainty. A later analysis noted that only in some cases can “about” or “approximately” be swapped in for “like”. In “She’s, like, about to break up with him”, it indicates a hesitancy to impart sensitive information. And in “Can I borrow like $50?” it softens a painful request.

Introducing a whole sentence with “It’s like” puts extra emphasis on it: “My roommates play music all the time. It’s like I can’t even concentrate enough to do my homework.”

The point of a discourse particle is to give the listener some idea of the speaker’s attitude about what they are saying. It provides a valuable second channel of information, overlaying the basic proposition of a sentence. Speakers who use like are not generally stupid or thoughtless. Research suggests that they employ it more with friends and in settings where they feel comfortable, indicating that they hope this second channel will be picked up by a sympathetic audience. They reduce its use in more formal settings—perhaps well aware of how older, more powerful adults feel about it.

Part of a Respected Family

Before condemning like, consider that it belongs to a class of words that has other, more respectable members. “So” and “right” have joined like as much-criticized discourse markers. However, they are beloved of some of the most influential people on the planet. For instance, both are typical of the speech of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s boss.

And if those are not classy enough, remember that words such as well, now, and indeed often seem to do little more than buy the speaker a few more moments to think, much as like can. Or recall as it were and so to speak, which, like like, can signal uncertainty or approximation.

So if you’re a like enthusiast, don’t hang your head in shame. Just don’t use it every other sentence cause that’s, like, not good.