Friday, August 12, 2011

On Vagueness - "And he was like, you know..."

In case you thought the overuse of the word "like" is a new phenomenon, or at least one of the recent decade, you will be as surprised as I was by Clark Whelton's astute analysis of The decline and fall of American English, and stuff. My husband brought his article in City Journal to my attention because I often bemoan the dismal state of English capabilities of my composition students.

According to Whelton's analysis of interviewing college students for internships to support New York Mayor Koch's speechwriting staff in the 1980s, telling stories in playback mode and soundbites took hold in the mid-1980s. "Like" was quickly joined by "I go," and "he goes," or "I went." Nowadays we don't even notice anymore that the capacity for proper description has been lost in everyday conversation. For a while, my son made it a sport to count how many times the worst "like" offender in school used the word in one conversation: The record was 73.

At least we don't write like (proper use of word!) that yet but pretty soon writers will have to capture the insertion of like in any dialogue to make it sound authentic. Whelton did a remarkable job with that already at the beginning of his article:

"I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her back yard. 'And he was like, you know, 'Helloooo, what are you looking at?' and stuff, and I'm like, you know, 'Can I, like, pick you up?' and he goes, like 'Brrp brrp brrrp,' and I'm like, you know, 'Whoa, that is so wow!'"

I assume he played back that program several times to capture that talk. It definitely sounds like (!!!) what I overhear all the time, waiting in line at Starbucks, sitting in a café, or listening to my kids talking to their friends. Except I don't have a replay button to get the placement of the likes just right. For now I will just have to sharpen my ear and wish I could write like that.


  1. "Except *like*, you don't have a replay button..."
    I use it when I want give a specific fun sound to a regular young character--for voice.

  2. Annette, this is a great post. I chuckled while reading about the baby squirrel. And yes, I hear people talking this way all the time. It's *like* *well* *hello* everyone forgot how to speak correct English. Or maybe that's correct these days :-)

  3. Bane of my existence! My daughter used to say 'like' so many times I had to get a jar so that every time she said 'like' she had to pay a quarter. After about $5 worth, she started to watch her language.

    The one that also makes me nuts? Dude.

    My son's friends say it all the time, which makes me twitchy, but then they'll call ME Dude. Once. If they call me Dude again? They go home.

    I'm giggling about that girl with the squirrel. "He was like, you know, 'hellooooo, what are you looking at?'." A talking squirrel!

  4. The Desert Rocks - thanks, glad you liked this post.

    Angela - I'm telling you, one of these days we'll be writing like that!

    Tameri - I LOVE your idea with the quarter and the jar, I might try that. And I agree with you on "dude!" I mean dude is a man, right? So is guy, by the way, but I've given up on getting upset about that.

  5. Oh boy, what a landmine topic, but here goes. There are, as I'm sure you know, infinite layers and varieties of discourse, from the most formal written forms through to colloquial written, texted, and spoken flavors, to the broadest, fastest, and/or coarsest speech. I defend both prescriptive AND descriptive uses of language, sometimes in the same sentence. For example, my most casual spoken English is jam-packed with "likes" and even the occasional "hello" and "dude" - and yet I'm not a teen, but a 47-year-old mother of four. Our kids, however, move fluidly among these different modes of discourse. What bothers me far more than laziness in casual speech is the prevalence of obvious errors like "irregardless." That, to me, is crazy-making.
    There is a certain logic to people replaying prior conversations by using "like" or "he goes": in one way, it sort of fits our instant-replay, instant-playback, shoot-text-send culture. Perhaps in an age when it is so easy to capture and transmit content, and there is so damn much of it we are expected to capture, "like" performs a sort of shorthand for quicker transmission, saving us the time of having to come up with original turns of phrase.