November 22, 2003

like is , like, not really like if you will

Geoff Pullum argues that val-speak "like" is like old-fogey "if you will." His case is cogent as well as entertaining.

But based on the examples and analysis in Muffy Siegel's lovely paper "Like: The Discourse Particle and Semantics" (J. of Semantics 19(1), Feb. 2002), I want to suggest that Geoff is, like, not completely right.

Muffy supports and extends the definition of (this use of) like due to Schourup (1985): "like is used to express a possible unspecified minor nonequivalence of what is said and what is meant". And I agree with Geoff that there are several widely-used formal-register expressions with more or less the same function: "if you will", "as it were", "in some sense", etc.

So far so good. However, Muffy's article also supports two differences between "like" and "if you will".

First, some of her examples (taken from taped interviews with Philadelphia-area high school students) suggest a quantitative difference:

She isn't, like, really crazy or anything, but her and her, like, five buddies did, like, paint their hair a really fake-looking, like, purple color.

They're, like, representatives of their whole, like, clan, but they don't take it, like, really seriously, especially, like, during planting season.

In these two examples, 8 discourse-particle likes get stuck in among a mere 38 non-like words -- roughly one like every 5 words. It's hard to translate this into fogey-speak:

?They're representatives, if you will, of their whole clan, if you will, but they don't take it really seriously, if you will, especially during planting season, if you will.

Whatever the whining old fogeys may say, I think it's this tic-tock frequency that bothers them. I once had a colleague who used the word literally similarly often: "Now, literally, look at the first equation, where, literally, the odd terms of the expansion will, literally, cancel out..." It (was one of several things about this guy that) drove me nuts. If all middle-aged telecommunications engineers started talking that way, I'd get in line behind William Safire to slam them for it. (By contrast, the overuse of like by young Americans seems quaint and charming to me, probably because I like the speakers better.)

There's a second difference between like and if you will to be found in Muffy's paper. She documents a number of semantic effects of like, such as weakening strong determiners so as to make them compatible with existential there:

(38) a. *There's every book under the bed.
     b. There's, like, every book under the bed. (Observed: Speaker
	     paraphrased this as 'There are a great many books under the
	     bed, or the ratio of books under the bed to books in the rest
             of the house is relatively high.')
(39) a. *There's the school bully on the bus.
     b. There's, like, the school bully on the bus. (Observed: Speaker 
	     paraphrased this as 'There is someone so rough and domineering
             that she very likely could, with some accuracy, be called the
             school bully; that person is on the bus.')

Try this in fogey-speak: "there's every book under the bed, if you will". Like, I don't think so.

No, like is definitely a more powerful (and useful) expression than if you will. Perhaps that's why some people use it, like, too much?

[Note: Muffy Siegel's paper doesn't discuss these specific alleged differences (between "like" and other hedges), which were inspired by her analysis but are not her fault.]

[Update 11/23/2003: Maggie Balistreri's Evasion-English Dictionary provides some amusing and relevant entries for like, though lexicographers might quibble about the sense divisions as well as the assignment of examples to senses. Well, anyhow, if I were a lexicographer, I would :-)... And here she is being interviewed on NPR, expressing the perspective that Geoff Pullum complained (like, validly) about.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 22, 2003 09:39 AM