Like it or not.


Years ago, an otherwise intelligent and sensible man wrote to the leading government minister of the day to complain about the way people were speaking. His particular beef was how they clipped off the ends of words,  dooming  the English language, he predicted, to a future of ugly monosyllables. He said something should definitely be done about it.

 The man’s name was Jonathan Swift, the year was 1712, the minister was Lord Harley. The clipped syllables included  the –ed at the end of past tenses, producing such monstrous pronunciations as walk’d and talk’d  rather than the correct walk-ed and talk-ed. Others horrors? The use of the word mob rather than its full and beautiful mobile vulgus, and phiz rather than physiognomy.

Harley’s opinion is not recorded. Perhaps he agreed with Swift but was too busy with other things, like the Treaty of Utrecht. And so nothing was done.  The abbreviation mob  became completely normal,  and both phiz and physiognomy turned out to be short-lived slang for face. The past tense morpheme -ed continued to be clipped  and pretty soon no-one noticed or cared about it. The English language continued to be perfectly capable of expressing past time, and archaisms such as walk-ed were heard only when, for example,  the metre of poetry or music demanded it. ( If you have ever sung The people that walked in darkness from Handel’s Messiah, you will have used the old pronunciation, and maybe found it charmingly archaic.)

  However, the strong opinion that  English should not be allowed to go its own way has stayed with us over the last three hundred years, with a steady stream of people taking  up Swift’s mantle.  And so here is Christopher Hitchens in January 2010,  complaining about the use of  the word like by young people.

 He is right that it’s a new phenomenon in English. That’s why it’s noticeable, just as mob was noticeable in 1712 to people who expected mobile vulgus. And it’s fair of him to acknowledge the linguists who have recognised that like is now being used as a very special quotative, i.e. a way of dramatically reporting  something which someone said or felt. “And he’s like, AGHHHH! ”  Here, like handily floats around between thought, direct speech and indirect speech. This takes nothing away from English; in fact, it adds a string to its bow. But you get the feeling that Hitchens is reluctant to accept it as a useful development, even when as lofty a wordsmith as Ian McEwan has defended it.  Hitchens  cannot let it pass without expressing regret. He does not like the word like, except when it is used in what he calls its ‘strong’ senses of to be fond of and to resemble. (I think by ‘strong’ he means older and thus ‘better’.)  He really does not want to see people using like in a new (weak?) way as a conjunction. The actual grammatical battle, he says, emotively, was lost in 1954 when Winston cigarettes used the slogan, “tastes good, like a cigarette should”, prompting complaints from the heirs of Swift that this needed correcting to “as a cigarette should”. Clearly, he pines for the days when English speakers made this distinction: as+ clause, like + noun. In his last paragraph he calls for the conjuction as to be resurrected and enforced in the bizarre belief that this would give back something English can’t afford to lose.

 But Hitchens is confused. He thinks that the word like, as a new filler, quotative or conjunction is somehow to blame for incoherent, impoverished, inarticulate speech. Ridicule people who use it thus, he says, make them learn the proper grammar and more words, and you’ll have them speaking sense. A linguist would protest that not only is this totally impractical, it is also totally unnecessary. You can speak sense using like instead of as. You can speak sense using like as a quotative. You can speak total nonsense using as as a conjunction.

It’s not a question anymore of English grammar excluding like as a conjunction; like  has become a conjunction.  But there is still the question of style. Currently,  like as a conjunction is used in all but the most formal registers, while  the quotative (“He’s like, you have got to be joking.”)  is currently fine only in the informal speech of the young. Elsewhere this would be inappropriate. But things could change.  This new quotative may make its way into writing and even into formal writing.  And God was like, let there be light.”  There is nothing we can do about this. Graves are full of spinning prescriptivists.




One thought on “Like it or not.

  1. I’m like, a little disappointed in HItchens to learn this. He was appropriately aggressive in his activism against many things, but no doubt a little mistaken in his attitude towards language. I’m guessing he falsely identified "like" as some sort of grammatical proxy or devolved diction whose usage afforded speakers excessive simplification in speech, and therefore ultimately in thought. I think if he sat down with a knowledgeable linguist he might have been brought to light about what is going on.

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