The like test – do you know you’re saying it?
The colloquial use of like in informal situations is pervasive – try counting how many the people around you use and you’ll find its frequency is high. The question is whether speakers are aware that they are using like – if you don’t know you’re saying it, then you won’t be able to choose alternatives in a formal situation!
And now for the grammatical explanations …
The word like is very versatile: it can be found in different positions in a sentence and it does different jobs.
It can be:
Earthquakes cause devastation, destruction, pain, suffering and the like.
i.e. resembling something that has already been mentioned
Do you have any particular likes and dislikes?
i.e. things that are preferred (usually in plural)
I’ve got lots of likes on my post.
i.e. the act of showing support for or approval of something posted on the internet by clicking ‘like’
You shouldn’t hang around with the likes of them.
i.e. such a person or thing (colloquial, now usually derogatory)
What is the new girl like?
i.e. what sort of person (expects description in response rather than a comparison)
i.e. to find something enjoyable (transitive – followed by an object usually in the form of a noun or a present participle)
We always like to run early on Saturday morning.
i.e. to do something as a regular habit (transitive – followed by an object usually in the form of an infinitive)
I should like to know whether the essays need to be uploaded with the application form.
i.e. conditional, implying that the question has no obvious answer
Have you liked the photo of the baby on Stacey’s facebook page?
i.e. the act of registering one’s support for or approval of a post on the internet
A mathematician like you will never be misled by statistics in the news.
i.e. ‘such as’
The girl’s eyes shone like sapphires caught in moonlight.
i.e. in the same manner as (simile)
So far, so good. The usage of like in each of the examples above is standard. We can add to this list a number of idiomatic expressions:
Like father like son. (proverbial)
That’s more like it! (colloquial)
He feels like a take-away tonight. (i.e. to have an inclination for something, colloquial)
I want you to sort out all your computer junk, your old files and the like. (formula to avoid further listing of similar items)
Oh come on. Don’t be like that. (i.e. stop behaving in a negative way)
I like that! (i.e. don’t like = ironic, colloquial)
The essay requires polish, good editing if you like, before it will be ready for submission. (i.e. suggesting something with which others may disagree, formal)
You can borrow my coat if you like. (i.e. making a casual suggestion or an offer)
He’d do it like a shot if he was asked. (i.e. quickly, colloquial)
Informal spoken usage
From here on, we’re venturing into increasingly informal territory – examples of like that linguistic traditionalists may well describe as ‘vulgar’, but which have a high frequency in casual spoken interactions, particularly among young people. You can often trace the origins to American English in the second half of the twentieth century. If you are in a formal context, these colloquialisms are best avoided!
as a conjunction
Although this use of like is widespread, many people see it as an inappropriate choice where we need a conjunction to join clauses.
He’s good at English like his brother was. (i.e. as + verb)
The sun was weak like in winter. (as + ‘it was’, ellipsis of subject + verb)
as an intensifier
It was like wild last night.
i.e. draws attention to the adjective (often followed by a micropause and rising intonation on the adjective)
It was like so bad I didn’t want to go back.
as a marker for recounted speech (quoting clause)
i.e. said (used when telling an anecdote, often to express emotion, attitude or reaction)
as a hedge
He like totally died!
i.e. indicates that the following words are not to be taken literally (figurative use of language or hyperbole)
It’ll take like a year for Game of Thrones Season 3 to be out on DVD.
i.e. about (approximation)
Man, like if you could just like, you know, let us stay like for tonight.
i.e. expresses uncertainty
as a filler
Like how much do you want for the car?
i.e. has no semantic function in the context of the sentence
i.e. a discourse marker (functioning much like um or er)
Can you spot the difference?
The examples below are the like-count of a 20-minute car journey with a teenager … can you describe the use of like in each case?
Thorntons have like really nice chocolate.
I’ve liked Stewart Lee.
How far is that above like minimum wage?
It’s like literally the same thing.
I’ve worn that shirt for like two days.
Like, that’s not fair!