Back in journalism school, I had a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor who impressed upon his students the most critical of points: “Punctuating your speech with like is a guarantee for unemployment.”
Thoughtful folks are in agreement: Forbes contributor Rob Asghar describes himself as a “a recovering like-aholic, maybe even a fully recovered one.” Daily Muser Sara McCord says that saying like too frequently detracts from your professionalism. And actress Emma Thompson says that it makes young people sound stupid.
So what, like, is the deal?
Filler ain’t nothin’ new.
Clearly, if we’re going to get some proper insight into the English language, we should turn to the BBC. Turns out that using like is this, like, linguistic-generational thing. First of all, everybody uses fillers–whether um, like, or uh–because we can’t, as Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang editor John Ayto says, keep up “highly monitored, highly grammatical language” all the time.
“It is not a lazy use of language–that is a common fallacy among nonlinguists,” he says. “We have always used words to plug gaps or make sentences run smoothly. They probably did in Anglo-Saxon times; it’s nothing new.”
It’s a generational thing.
As we’ve noted before, people tend to like (er, enjoy) people who are like them: organizational psychology research shows that you’re more likely to get hired if the hiring manager identifies with you, if you guys feel as though you’re of the same cohort.
That same sense of homophilia–or lack there of–is behind whether you like like or not. As Robert Groves, editor of the Collins Dictionary of the English Language, tells the BBC:
“When words break out from a specific use and become commonly used in a different way, people come down on them. . . . Using ‘um’ may seem more correct to Emma Thompson because using ‘like’ as a filler is not a feature of the language she uses. The more disassociated you are from the group that uses a word in a different way, the more that use stands out.”
What are we gonna, like, do about it?
Just because people have been using filler words since Beowulf was smiting all your best friends doesn’t mean that filler is a fine thing. Sara McCord, the Daily Muse writer, says that she kicked her like habit by paying better attention to her words, and not needing to, like, lean on the linguistic lard of like or um. So one solution, then, is to pay closer to attention to your words before you speak them–which is something we can all be a little more mindful of.
The other point–and this one from the BBC-interviewed linguists–is that the functionality of like depends on the context. Is it the best idea to pepper your speech with like while you’re telling your story at a job interview? Or when you’re talking with a grumpy boss who’s, like, 20 years older than you?
Depends on whether you think she’s like-minded.
[Image: Flickr user Jimmy Baikovicius]