The XX Factor

In Defense of the Word Like

Milton was, like, an amazing poet, but I prefer Blake.

Photo by CREATISTA/Shutterstock

So, like, the grown-ups are defending “like” now. They didn’t always: As recently as 2010, Christopher Hitchens declared the filler word a “prop,” a “crutch,” and a “weed-style … tic.” Habitual sayers of “like” and other bits of verbal flotsam, he claimed, fell into two categories: “the chronically modest and inarticulate” and “the mildly authoritarian who want to make themselves uninterruptible.”  

Like: for hedgers and blowhards.

Then, in 2012, author Ted Gup upped the ante of “like” criticism. The verbal spasm, he argued:

… is a way to buy time, a stalling device that keeps the sentence aloft even when the air is no longer under its wings. It creates the illusion of forward movement but imparts no progress toward an idea or a position. Such a sentence hovers, hoping that some direction will clarify itself before exhaustion—the speaker’s, the listener’s, or both—takes hold and the sentence collapses from sheer vacuity.

Like: Life support for sentences that deserve to die. Deceitful tax on our attention. And worse! Gup concludes: “The endless cascade of ‘likes’ is nothing more than the sound of our own collective dereliction.”

Like: The end of civilization as we know it.

Luckily, the maligned monosyllable has a new advocate in Paula Marantz Cohen, an author and English professor who last week took to the American Scholar with another theory. She finds “like” helpful for expressing uncertainty and nuance. And while she acknowledges that we sometimes sprinkle in filler words to buy time, because we’re unsure about what we want to say, she believes that “like” also projects a thoughtful hesitancy, an alertness to places where our usual vocabulary falls short.

Cohen remembers intentionally slipping “like” into a lecture on Paradise Lost. “The thing you have to realize with Milton is that even if you don’t, like, ‘believe,’ there is a wealth of profound observation about human relationships in the poem,” she told students. Here, like “opens up the idea of belief.” It stretches the statement to include not only pure religious faith, but things like it: the desire to believe, maybe, or the conviction that comes out of social pressure—both feelings relevant to Milton. (What does it mean to believe in a poem, anyway? Maybe it makes more sense to, like, believe in it?)

Some uses of “like” achieve an emotional accuracy that would not be possible if you insisted on speaking literally. “The bakery is, like, two seconds away from my apartment, so I can pick up the cake” captures not just that the bakery is close by, but also the subjective experience of convenience. It telegraphs more (useful) information than “The bakery is approximately a seven-minute walk from my apartment, give or take a few minutes and depending on which lights I catch and whether I’m wearing sneakers or flip-flops—so I can pick up the cake.” Also, by the time you’ve finished uttering that sentence, you could have gone to the bakery and back.

As rests in music do, filler words emphasize what comes next by creating a pause. In Cohen’s example (“like … believe”), maybe the emphasis encourages us to question which modes of belief would actually be acceptable to Milton or to think about the kind of belief that would allow you to take the imaginative liberties for which Paradise Lost is famous. In my example (“like … two seconds”), maybe you zero in on your friend’s proximity to cake, decide to cultivate that friendship, and never go hungry again. (See? So useful!)

Either way, studies show that verbal fillers can make you attend more to the words that follow. In one experiment, a computer voice directed people to grab and manipulate objects arrayed in front of them. The test subjects carried out the directions more quickly when the voice instructed them to “move the, uh, box” than simply to “move the box,” indicating that the “uh” improved mental processing.

And though Cohen skips over the quotative use of “like” (So I’m like, “That is such a cute lion!” and he’s like, “That’s a Tibetan mastiff, moron”), it’s also worth noting that introducing a quote with “like” allows you to embody the participants in a conversation in an especially vivid way. You aren’t chained to reciting exact quotations. You get to relay both the basic back-and-forth and the subtler affect. You can be a thespian.

In an ideal world, we’d invent a language capacious and precise enough to express every idea we could dream up. But since that language doesn’t exist, we’re lucky to have a word that, like, accepts the elusiveness of some types of experience. And we can throw that word into our speech to indicate that, like, we know we’re only approximating the meaning we want, but, you know, bear with us, because we’d rather try anyway than just shut up and say nothing at all.