Like, just no

It’s like, like.

Serious students of language have a hard time knowing what to do with this all-too-familiar use of like. They call it “filler,” and it’s hard not to regard it as something bordering on the sublinguistic, an almost intolerable torturing of the magnificent instrument bequeathed to us by Shakespeare and his successors. For those of us who teach and spend a lot of our time talking to young people, the endless supply of self-interrupting likes that litter their speech and impede the flow of their thoughts can be very hard to take.

I’ve been noticing that lately – the way the filler-like has expanded to the point that it excludes other words almost entirely. How do I notice it? By being on buses, overhearing those Young People. It’s no longer the single “like” that introduces a noun or verb, it’s a stuttering of “likes” all through a short sentence, such that there is more “like” than anything else. I don’t know how they can stand each other. They don’t have time to say anything of interest, because they have to fit in so many empty “likes.” They’re making noise at each other, but they’re not talking.

The redoubtable linguist John McWhorter has written entertainingly and well about the ubiquitous like, and he mostly approves of it. One might even be justified in saying that he likes it. Yes, he is willing to admit that its use does betray a certain diffidence or “hesitation,” a fear of “venturing a definite statement.” But in the end, he contends that like as verbal filler is better understood as “a modal marker of the human mind at work in conversation,” of thought in motion.

I can buy that when it’s used relatively sparingly. I used to do it myself. But expressing hesitation ten times in one short sentence is way beyond the necessary or desirable. It becomes just maddening clutter that displaces actual meaning.

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