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A Word, Please: The unexplained controversy around ‘like’ instead of ‘such as’

I like “like.”

Specifically, I like “like” to mean “such as.” And the reason I like “like” is because so many of the writers I edit have been conditioned to dislike “like.”

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It, like, drives me bonkers.

“Along with exciting new menu items such as tilapia tacos and roasted corn guacamole, you’ll find innovative craft cocktails such as mango margaritas, along with new seating options such as patio, bar and dining room.”

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Are all those “such ases” really necessary? No. Are any of those “such ases” necessary? Again, I would argue no.

I checked a few random editions of the Associated Press Stylebook going back to 1993. I was certain I would find in there, somewhere, the root of many writers’ misperception that “like” means “similar to” and never means “such as.”

My theory didn’t hold water. Nowhere in AP did I find this idea expressed as a rule or even a recommendation. So I checked the Chicago Manual of Style, the other publishing reference book writers are most likely to follow. It's not in there, either.

There is some interesting stuff on using “like” in place of “as.” We’ll get to that in a minute. But the idea that “like” can’t be used to mean “for instance” or “such as” or “for example” isn’t in there anywhere.

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So how did so many of the writers and editors I’ve worked with become so terrified of using “like” in cases like these? I don’t know.

But I can assure you I’ve done my part to fight the misperception. I change “such as” to “like” every time I think it sounds more natural or elegant.

Lest anyone think that’s sloppy usage, here’s one of the dictionary’s many definitions of “like”: “such as.” Here’s the example the dictionary gives: “a subject like physics.”

Using like for “as” is also acceptable, as in, “Caramels taste good, like candy should.” But this is a little more controversial. This controversy, at least, is rooted in logic.

Here’s the reasonable idea that led to the wrong conclusion that you can’t use “like” in place of “as” in a sentence like the one above: “As” is a conjunction. One of the jobs of conjunctions is to introduce whole clauses. “Candy should” is a whole clause because it contains a subject and a verb. So “as” can certainly introduce it: “as candy should.”

“Like” can be any of a number of different parts of speech, including a noun (What are your likes and dislikes?) and a verb (I like ice cream).

More often, it’s a preposition. Prepositions are governed by some very specific rules, most importantly: Prepositions introduce objects, which are always either a noun, a pronoun or a noun phrase. In “He acts like a fool,” the object of the preposition is the noun phrase “a fool.” In “spies like us,” it’s the pronoun “us.”

This is why people think you can’t say, “Caramels taste good, like candy should.” If the preposition “like” is supposed to introduce nouns and not clauses, it is indeed a mistake to use it to introduce “candy should.”

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But that’s not true. In addition to its job as a noun, a verb and a preposition, “like” is also classified by many dictionaries as a conjunction. Just like “as” is.

If you want to dislike something about “like,” you can stick with the use: “Jane was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’” Dictionaries haven’t yet embraced using the phrase “to be like” to mean “to say.”

Also, if you dislike, like, this kind of interjection, that one’s not in the dictionary either. So you’re, like, totally not alone.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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