In defense of ‘like’

So like, what do you think of the way young adults talk? To be fair, I’ve heard every argument under the sun. I’ve heard that kids these days just don’t care about their words, that young people are the impetus of change in a living language, that it’s just a fad, and that Millennials are ruining English. I think all except the latter are true.

If you’re an emerging adult or young person, bear with me. I’m not here to bash or to tell you what you already know. If you’re past the young adult age, don’t tune out. I really do want to dive into the complexity here, and I’m not interested in picking sides. Because I think when it comes down to it, that’s the main issue that usually arises whenever the topic of “the way young people talk” comes up. And sometimes being an adult means bringing up issues that get under our skin.

As background, I’m a word nerd. My actual job revolves around knowing the ins and outs of proper English, and how to improve people’s words. But being good at my job also means knowing the right times to break the rules. I have worked under various style guides, conceded to rules I didn’t agree with, and fought to get policy changed when old rules became irrelevant or incorrect. I have a lifelong devotion to the Oxford comma, but don’t really care if you end a sentence with a preposition. Why? Because what matters most to me — and what I believe should be the guiding rule anytime we consider our words — is what will make our message most clear, most poignant, and most effective.

It should also be noted that when I speak, my language differs a lot from when I write. If you noticed, I haven’t used the word “like” since the first sentence. If we were having a casual conversation, that wouldn’t be the case. Here comes the controversy — I don’t believe that using the word “like,” especially when speaking, is a bad thing. Of course, there’s a limit to this. I remember listening to a speech in which the speaker said “like” more than 30 times in about 5 minutes. It was overkill, and distracted from their message. But “like” serves a few purposes that naysayers too often ignore.

  1. Simile – If you’re not cool with similes, it might be time to re-evaluate. It was like a breath of fresh air and other comparisons. And since “as” doesn’t always sound right, “like” works well.
  2. Affection – I like tacos. Cool, me too! I personally think English could use a better range of terms for positive affection, but “like” is a good place to start.
  3. Paraphrasing ­– He was like, “Are you kidding me?” Y’all, it’s the perfect shorthand to indicate the message of what someone said without being on the hook for a direct quote, as “said” can imply. And before I hear any objections, older crowds do the exact same thing with “was all.”
  4. Placeholder – This is the one that can get people in trouble for overuse, especially when public speaking. Here’s the rule of thumb: If you’re the only one who has the floor, then scale it back. If it’s a conversation and other people might jump in, it’s a useful way to indicate that you aren’t done speaking while you gather your thoughts.

See, none of those uses of “like” is wrong, just culturally and situationally relevant (or irrelevant). Same thing with “ain’t” and “bro” and “same” and so many of the other linguistic novelties that have skyrocketed in popularity with young generations. While they can be overused — and some are just fads that disappear over time — some of them are harmless colloquialisms or convey nuance that wasn’t previously coded into other words.

Now I’ll be super honest: There are some popular words and phrases that I can’t stand, and therefore refuse to incorporate into my vocabulary. I can’t stand the word “bae” because I find it both annoyingly overused and disagree with its origin as “before anything else.” But I don’t think it’s ruining English. A language can only be ruined by those who are too lazy to convey their message thoughtfully, and by those who insist on stagnating it in outdated tradition to the point of it losing meaning.

And of course, it doesn’t stop at words and phrases. The way that language is changing extends into capitalization, punctuation, emoticons and emojis, casual hyperbole, fatalistic humor, memes, and even type stylization (like bolding, italics, etc.). Honestly all my thoughts on these linguistic trends and trajectories could probably fill a book. But the point, in the end, is that intelligence is not to be measured by how often someone says “like” in a conversation, or whether they have to look slang up on Urban Dictionary. If our language is intentional, thoughtful, honest, and conscious of its impact, then it’s doing its job. Regardless of any dangling participles.

How do you think younger generations are changing language? Let me know in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or Instagram @oh.grow.up! Thanks for reading, and happy adulting!

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