The word “like” may not look dangerous. But if you use it in ways offensive to certain sticklers, it’s guaranteed some readers will look down their nose at you.
No, I’m not talking about the verbal tic of saying, “like, you know, like, whatever.” I’m talking about far more common, far more respectable uses, like the one I use in this sentence or the one in the famous old ad “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.”
“‘Like’ has long been widely used by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming.”
Ouch. These rather harsh words from “Elements of Style” authors William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White were published first in 1959 in reference to “conjunctive like” — that is, using “like” as a conjunction.
Here’s the idea: “Like” functions as several different parts of speech. Often, it’s a preposition. The main job of a preposition is to introduce a noun: This steak is like butter. A cat is like a lion. They act like fools.
Conversely, “as” is traditionally considered a conjunction, which introduces whole clauses, complete with subject and verb. “A cigarette should” is a whole clause, which is why you might say, “Winston tastes good, as a cigarette should.”
But “like” can be a conjunction, introducing whole clauses, just as it can be a preposition (and, of course, a verb and a noun). Major dictionaries, including American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s, are quick to point this out.
And what Strunk and White didn’t know is that the use of “like” as a conjunction wasn’t a recent development in their day. Not by a long shot.
“‘Like is often used as a conjunction meaning ‘as’ or ‘as if,’ particularly in speech,” the American Heritage authors note.
“While writers since Chaucer’s time have used ‘like’ as a conjunction, the usage today has a somewhat informal or conversational flavor. Language critics and writing handbooks have condemned the conjunctive use of ‘like’ for more than a century, and in accordance with this tradition, ‘like’ is usually edited out of more formal prose,” they added.
Did you catch the part about Chaucer? He was doing his thing in the 1300s, meaning Strunk and White’s use of the word “lately” was way off.
But here’s a bit of irony. I was in the middle of writing this column when a client sent me an article to edit that began “Just like being in debt can make it harder to get a loan.”
Suddenly, I had a lot more sympathy for those mid-20th century sticklers who disapproved of conjunctive “like” — because I didn’t like this one at all. I changed it to “as.”
Conjunctive “like” isn’t the only “like” that can get you into trouble. Using it to mean “such as” or “for instance” is dangerous, too.
“We enjoy activities like volleyball, kayaking and snorkeling.” I’ve known a lot of editors who would automatically change that “like” to “such as.” They do so in every situation, no matter how awkward or wordy the “such ases” make the sentence.
These editors labor under the false belief that “like” means only “similar to.” If that were true, “activities like volleyball” would refer to dodge ball and maybe basketball, but not volleyball.
The belief is so ubiquitous that every few years I fall back into thinking it’s an Associated Press style rule. But it’s not. I checked several editions of the AP guide spanning from the 1980s, and none prohibits “like” used like this.
So no matter how you like to use “like,” chances are you’re right, and dictionaries and style guides will back you up.