"Like" abuse redivivus

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sun Apr 13 18:34:13 UTC 2008

On Apr 13, 2008, at 10:23 AM, i wrote:

> ... as for
> young people, everybody knows that kids don't know shit and reject the
> wisdom of their elders.

i forgot to mention that they're also inarticulate.

by the way, it's time to look at what people mean when they talk about
inarticulateness in language, especially the language of teenagers,
especially with respect to "like".  i suspect that people use
"inarticulate", like "sloppy" and "vague", merely to label linguistic
variants they don't like -- without making an actual, testable, claim
about those variants.

to see the problem, here are the possibly relevant NOAD2 definitions
for "inarticulate":

1.  unable to speak distinctly or express oneself clearly ... not
clearly expressed or pronounced
... having no distinct meaning; unintelligible ... not expressed;

the thing is, discourse-particle uses of "like" are all add-ons; they
are extra, supplementary material within a larger utterance.  if the
utterance is clear without any occurrences of "like", it's equally
clear with them; the occurrences of "like" communicate additional
nuances of meaning or discourse function.  (as for quotative "be
like", it fills the same slot as "say".  surely no one can fail to
understand quotative "be like" these days; the usual objection to it
is that the speaker is unaccountably using an alternative to standard
"say", not that it's unclear.)

now, some of you are going to object that you have trouble
understanding sentences with discourse-particle "like" in them,
because the "like"s get in the way.  no doubt that's true for some
people, though many people manage perfectly well.  i'd guess that a
lot of the effect follows directly from some people's antipathy
towards "like": they can't help noticing all those offensive "like"s,
so they don't really pay attention to the rest.  (similar effects have
been reported for other non-standard, informal, innovative, or spoken
variants.)  in any case, the problem here resides mostly in the
hearers, not in the speakers or in the utterances themselves.

i know, now you'll say it's the speakers' business to tailor their
utterances to their hearers' needs -- but i think most hearers have no
difficulty in this case, and the speakers might fairly respond that
it's the hearers' business to adjust to the variants they're
confronted with.  insisting that other people change how they speak so
as to conform to your grammar -- otherwise, you can't, or won't,
understand them -- is a kind of grammatical egocentrism: at best, it's
uncooperative, and at worst it's impolite, rude, and insulting.


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