The Proper Use of the Word “Like”

The word “like” is quite possibly the most misused and abused word in the English language. Who amongst us hasn’t heard a teenager toss out a gem like this when speaking?

“Like, have you guys like seen that like totally like amazing movie about like gladiators?”

So what, right? Teenagers have always done their own thing. Where’s the harm?

It’s the old slippery slope argument. When people have heard it used improperly 50 times, 130 times, 42,649 times, they lose track of what’s proper and what’s improper. In the stories that I read online, writers use the word “like” improperly in half or more of the instances. Indeed, I’ve been told by a couple of authors that the like the way “like” sounds better than the proper alternative. Oh boy.

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The following example is not an aberration; it has become the norm: “I stood over him like I was eight feet tall.”

The author uses the word “like” improperly here. The sentence should read: “I stood over him as if I were eight feet tall.”

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Another recent example: “It’s not like I had any choice in the matter.”

The proper version: “It’s not as though I had any choice in the matter.”

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The simple rule is this: “Like” governs nouns and pronouns. When modifying verbs, adverbs, adjectives, etc, replace “like” with “as,” “as if,” or “as though.” If you can’t replace the word “like” in your text with “such as” or “similar to,” you’ve probably used it improperly.

I’ve read more than one article in which the author (specifically an editor or agent) said that the improper use of “like” is one of the first tip-offs that she’s dealing with an amateur, and therefore less likely to be interested.

Two Exceptions:

A)     Narrative dialect or colloquialisms

  1. If you’re using a first-person narrative, for example, you may ascribe to the character-narrator certain colloquialisms and speech mannerisms.
  2. Caution: Be consistent. If the character uses “like” instead of “as if,” he must do so always.

B)     Dialogue

  1. Your character’s speech may not be terribly concise and proper. For example, a teenage character may well blurt out the kind of sentence I highlighted at the start of this blog entry. Once again, if you choose to ascribe such mannerisms to a character, be consistent throughout your piece.

So, like search your document for like every instance of that like nasty word, and like make sure you have it right before like submitting your piece for like publication, like it’s your job or something.

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3 responses to “The Proper Use of the Word “Like”

  1. Forgive my unedited sentence, but I tried applying this advice and am not sure I did it correctly:
    “Our millennia spent in hiding, along with conservative technological leadership made the Osuna’s sudden appearance as though our sun was about to go supernova. ”

    What is being modified, the “sudden appearance” or the “leadership?”

    • Tim, that remains awkward and illogical. You need to pin down your casue & effect, and restructure accordingly:

      “After millennia spent in hiding, and given our conservative technological leadership, Osuna’s sudden appearance caused the sort of wisdespread reaction one might expect after hearing the sun was about to go supernova.”

  2. LOL This was like the best article about like ever. I was like totally impressed by it. I mean, it’s not like they teach us this in schools or anything. This is what our editors are for. Like.
    :p

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