Tuesday, September 01, 2020

The ubiquitous and incredibly annoying "like"

It was probably only a matter of time until I got around to commenting on the ubiquitous amd excessive overuse of the word "like", mainly by millennials and Gen Zers, but increasingly by everyone else. I'm not exactly a grammar nazi, but I guess I'm old school, and I do find it annoying, mainly I think because it seems so redundant in most cases. I don't mind that the English language is changing, and that new words are being introduced all the time - thus has it ever been. What I object to is when grammatical errors become acceptable and mainstream - that is just sloppiness - and when words are introduced that just don't MEAN anything, that don't add anything. I could rant about the millennial phrase "I feel like" in the same way, and don't even get get me started on "literally" and "vocal fry" and "uptalk" and a whole bunch of other millennialisms that even millennials know they should rein in.
So, what's it all about, then, this "like" business? Luckily, the ever-reliable Grammar Girl got there before me, and has done all the hard work.
In addition to what might be called the "legitimate" uses of the word, as in "I like that" and "I feel like an idiot", no less than four novel uses have been identified, one of which I must admit I don't really understand. The first and third of these, coincidentally the ones that I really don't like, are predomimantly used by women, apparently (which does NOT make me a misogynist, by the way).
Probably the most ubiquitous and, for me at least, the most egregious, is the "quotative like", e.g. "I was like, who do you think you are?" Most of the time, it just means "say" or "said", but it can also mean "think", and it can even mean "behaviour suggestive of". And yes, it really did start with the Valley Girls of California in the early 1980s (remember them?) - Frank Zappa's Valley Girl, featuring his own teenage daughter, came out in 1982 ("OK, fine, fer sure, fer sure, She's a Valley Girl, and there is no cure". And of course it is still growing today; it really is almost impossible to avoid nowadays. I still don't really understand it, or how it arose, though: it doesn't actually make any literal sense.
The second usage is called the "approximative adverb like", e.g. "it was, like, two years ago". In this sense, it means "about" or "more or less", and this sense was first used soon after the Second World War, but became much more common in the 1970s and thereafter. I don't find it quite as annoying as the quotative like - I think I probably use it myself sometimes - but why not just say "about"?
Next is the "discourse participle like", as in "there is, like, nothing I can do". It can go before a verb phrase, an adjective phrase, or any kind of phrase really, because it does absolutely nothing in the sentence: it serves no purpose whatsoever. It is therefore a usage that particularly annoys me. Interestingly, it has been used in this sense for some 60 years now, although, as with the others uses, it has really taken off in the last 20 or 30 years.
Finally, there is a fourth use, technically called the "discourse marker like", which is similar to the discourse participle like, which comes at the start of a sentence, e.g. "Like, I've been doing this for years". Supposedly, it is an alternative for "well" or "so", but I can't say I have noticed it being used much. And anyway, isn't it basically just the same as as the discourse participle like. I'm not sure I understand it. Supposedly, it has been in use since the 1940s and 1950s but, once again, has become much more prevalent in the last 60 years. Like.
None of this, however, explains why "like" has become quite so ubiquitous. One theory is that it is just a filler (or "crutch word") used when people are not sure what to say, similar to "um" and "er". This is particularly useful given that younger people tend to speak so quickly (another millennial/Gen Z tendency), sometimes faster than their brains can process their sentences. It can be fixed by just thinking more carefully about what we say, or simply pausing where we might otherwise say "like" as a short-term fix to get us out of the habit.
To some extent, though, and probably a large one, it is just a fashion statement, an attempt to sound as though one belongs to the youthful clan (which is why you hear middle-aged hipsters doing it). The logic is: if everyone else is doing it, then who am I to buck the trend, and sound like a language snob. The push to comform is strong, especially among younger people.
Of course, there are those who claim that the novel uses of the word "like" are a good thing, that they enrich the language and empower women, but they are in a small minority. For instance, it is claimed that using the quotative like allows for a quote to be used in a non-verbatim way, such as something that a person wanted to say or should have said. And this is a good thing? Another justification is that speech without "likes" in it tends to sound stilted, unnatural and overly formal. This is a ridiculous argument and will lead, logically and over time, to a complete dumbing down of the language, an unconscionable loss to all and sundry, a wilful destruction of a vibrant language.
And just so the author of this article knows, no we don't "blame" young girls nd teens for this - it is a societal movement and has been going on since long before these young girls were born. It's just that it is getting worse, and these young girls (and boys) are the latest and most egregious offenders.

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