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    As You, Like, Like It

    Wednesday, December 21, 2011

    "Like" is a frequently misused word nowadays. Basically, there are just two correct uses: as a preposition when presenting a comparison…

    "Time creeps like a turtle."

    and as a verb meaning "to have positive feelings for"…

    "Bears like honey."

    Often, however, "like" is misused as a conjunction, when "as" should be used instead. Consider the old cigarette advertisement that erroneously declared, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." While the ad campaign was memorable, the grammar was wrong. So wrong, in fact, that you can use it as a memory aid for how not to use "like."

    In recent decades, "like" has also become used as a casual "filler" word in popular vernacular, especially among the young: "So we were, like, going to meet, like, at the park. But then it, like, started to rain." It is also often coupled with a form of "be" for use in place of "said": "So I was like, 'I don't believe it,' and he was like, 'It's totally true.'" Neither of these uses is acceptable for business.

    That casual employment has, however, led to one possible permanent addition to "like's" repertoire. In a Vanity Fair article a couple of years ago, Christopher Hitchens quoted novelist Ian McEwan as suggesting that as an interjection, "like" creates hyperbole and emphasis, as in the statement, "It was, like, the worst movie ever." Still, we would not suggest this usage for business communication.

    So why bother discussing these casual usages of "like" at all? Well, language does slowly shift and change, especially spoken language. (See our blog entry, "Not Just One but Four Grammars—And Why That's Good.") So what might be unthinkable in one context (such as a report or a formal speech) might be more acceptable in another (a casual brainstorming session, for example). Only by understanding the difference between formal rules and casual usage can we be certain to communicate effectively.

    —Joyce Lee

    P.S. As a fun exercise, count how many times a construction with "as" appears above. In which of them might someone mistakenly use "like"? J.L.

    Photo by Paolo Camera