Why We, Like, Say “Like” All the Time


Have you noticed that hardly anyone these days can complete a sentence without using the word like?

Some years ago, I found a book that helped me understand the phenomenon. It’s called The Evasion English Dictionary, by Maggie Balistreri. This is from the back cover: “…the E.E.D. is more than a dictionary of euphemisms by a hip and scathingly funny young linguist — it’s a merciless translation of the banalities of contemporary speech, a smart and useful guide to help you pierce the manipulative use of language and visit a universe where, duh, words have meaning.”

Balistreri has a knack for thinking about current language habits. Instead of just being irritated at the ubiquitous likes of modern conversation, she pulls back the curtain and figures out what we really mean.

My teenaged daughters pepper virtually every spoken sentence with this needless syllable. So do all their friends. I wish I could say, however, that this was a purely adolescent issue. I know plenty of adults who seem oblivious to the same habit. Even intelligent, well-educated folks. How is it, like, possible, that, like so many people are, like, addicted to to this word?

Ms. Balistreri thinks it has to do with an unwillingness to speak with clarity and conviction. It’s all about evasion. We don’t do this consciously, of course, but she dissects and analyzes various ways we use the word. Below is a sampling, straight from the book.

the undercutting like

Translation: I’m not smart; I’m cool. I don’t know where I picked up that knowledge.

  • I think he meant it, like, metaphorically.
  • That was like, Beethoven.
the vague like

Translation: Thereabouts

  • Have you been outside? It’s like, 100 degrees.
  • This was back in like, October.
the self-effacing like

Translation: Virtue is shameful.

  • No, I don’t want to like, betray her trust.
  • I want to try to be more, like, considerate.
the cowardly like

Translation: I disagree. That is, if it’s okay.

  • I think you’re like, overreacting.
  • Did you like, misspell that?
  • Didn’t you say you were gonna like, pay me back later?
the filler like

Translation: I finished my sentence.

  • How could you do that? I mean, I went out of my way to meet you there, and you didn’t show, and you didn’t even call, and it was like…
the apology like

Translation: Sorry, I’m inarticulate.

  • I was like, wow.
  • I, like, guess so.
the multimedia like

Translation: Visual aid to follow.

  • The baby was so cute. She was like…(Look cute.)
  • I was so happy. I was like…(Jump and clap hands.)
  • Did you see what she was wearing? I was like…(Judge.)

This is just a short sample. And the book covers other evasive linguistic devices that have woven their way into our everyday speech, including besides, but, feel, oh well, and whatever. Balistreri doesn’t excuse this sloppiness. She pokes fun as she explains. I found the book both enlightening and highly entertaining.

Although I recommend the book, I have to warn you that there are occasional profanities included. So don’t, like, get mad at me if you are, like, offended.

If this kind of thing interests you, check out my post on just sayin, another pervasive expression.

I’d love your comments. Do these interpretations of like seem correct? Did they make you laugh like they did me? Does understanding why we say things help? Any ideas on how to help kick the like habit?


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About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Steve Parker
    Steve Parker05-07-2016

    When I first encountered excessive use of ‘like’ in this context, it was on a trip to LA some years ago. I was pretty repelled by it at first because it was interspersed with the use of like you’ve written about elsewhere – what I considered to be a redundant like: “I’m not (like) going to wear that shirt”. However, as I listened more, I realised this other use was far from redundant: it was capable of contributing a lot when relating an occurrence: “He was like, you’re kidding”. What the words don’t explain is the action/expression that accompanies what follows the word like. “You’re kidding” could be accompanied by several actions and expressions. Therefore, a single short word stands in for “said this in this tone of voice, with this expression while performing this action”. That’s pretty economical use of language. It functions as a verb with numerous adverb phrases attached. For this reason, of course, it works a lot better in speech than writing.

  2. Grammar Nut
    Grammar Nut02-04-2013

    I like, totally liked this post.

  3. Hannah

    This was quite interesting. I will like, try to remember this and like share it with my friends! haha

  4. CFloyd

    This is excellent! I love to share stuff like this with my writing class since it’s composed of middle schoolers. Perhaps if they read something like this they will be more conscious and WANT to make the effort to speak more intelligently – and own their thoughts, and opinions.

  5. Lisa

    You for got the most culturally phenomenal (is this a term I just made up?) “like” of all. The Facebook like!!! It means: I have nothing better to do than to waste time reading what all of my “friends” are doing, yet don’t have enough to time to actually comment (cause I’m so busy) so I’ll just “like” what you said! I know this isn’t the same “like” you’re talking about, but I thought it was like, totally relevant.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko12-22-2011

      Well, I didn’t forget that use of “like.” I chose not to include it. It’s an entirely different culturalism (which is a word I just made up:)) One I may write about in the near future. I don’t have quite as critical an opinion as you about Facebook likes. I find it convenient to record my approval of a post or comment without having to contribute to a conversation. As an avid Facebooker, I sure like getting “likes” too!

  6. Lois

    I was thinking about like, “liking” this on facebook, but, well, I don’t want you to know, like think I’m like inarticulate or anything.

    I wish I had a recording of a college girl on her cell phone picking up a pre-ordered pizza. It went something like (used properly here) this: “I was like, you know, whatever, and he was like, well you didn’t call, and I was like well whatever, and he said, well we could you know, like go out again or something and I said….” You get the idea. I couldn’t wish that pepperoni up FAST ENOUGH! I hope she wasn’t you know, like an English major or something!

    Confession time. I catch myself doing this too, but usually in a conversation only, particularly with my teens!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko12-22-2011

      I think it’s contagious, Lois. I know I find myself sprinkling some of those “likes” into my speech on a regular basis. It takes conscious effort to keep them out.

  7. Kela

    Ha! My daughter and her fiance wrote in “like” terms back and forth on their facebook walls in mockery of “like”!
    I’ll be sharing this with them!! Haha!!

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