Friday, August 3, 2007

And I'm like, "No, I don't agree with this"

I'm not exactly a grammar snob, and heaven knows I've made my share of mistakes with the King's English. But still, I can be persnickety about the language at times.

One of my pet peeves is the use of the word "like" as a quotative -- as in: "I was like, 'No way," and she was like, 'Oh, yeah!'" This sort of thing is ubiquitous among young people these days, and it's creeping into conversations among the not-so-young.

In The New York Times Magazine of a few weeks ago, linguist Patricia T. O'Connor wrote a defense of "like" as a quotative, arguing that it's "a handy tool for quoting or paraphrasing the speech of others, often with sarcasm or irony."

But it's too often used, I contend, as a substitute for paraphrasing rather than a vehicle for it. Young people seem to have almost a phobia about paraphrasing; they prefer to use even the most prosaic quotations from a conversation:

"I was like, 'What do you want to do tonight?' And she was like, 'I don't know.' And I was like, 'Wanna go over to Heather's house?' And she was like, 'Heather is such a drip.'"

Come on. Paraphrase it: "I said maybe we could go over to Heather's house, and she said Heather's a drip."

I can agree with O'Connor's defense of "like" when it's used with facial or vocal imitation. But that's not usually the case.

And let's face it, the word can make you sound vapid, especially when it's combined with meaningless uses of "like" elsewhere in your statement. For example: "We were like walking to school, and we were like way late, and this kid comes up to us, and he's like, 'What are you looking at?' And we're like, 'Nothing.' And then he like tries to start a fight.'"

I don't put much hope in the possibility that "like" as a quotative might eventually fade away, as was the case with "go" and "goes," which served the same purpose for young people of the 1970s.

As O'Connor puts it: "Like definitely has legs."

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