We have several reasons to beware of the word “like.” Let’s see why.

Like 101

Given the overuse of this word in recent years, it’s obvious we aren’t going to impress anyone with sentences such as this:
The movie was, like, suspenseful, but I wouldn’t say it was, like, scary.

(Although that phrasing might seem characteristic only of teens and young adults, we should recognize that many of us sprinkle in “kind of” and “sort of” in a similarly tentative way. During editing we’re wise to examine each “sort of” or “kind of” to see if that should be changed to a slightly more elegant “a bit,” “somewhat,” or “rather” – or just eliminated. We want to write with conviction, so why write “kind of peeved” or “rather peeved” if the truth is that we are peeved?)

And let’s state for the record – even though the transgression seldom applies to writing – that another “like” abuse is this:
So I’m like, “Watch out!”
And he’s like, “For what?”
And I’m like, “Too late!”
(You can make up your own context for this sophisticated exchange.)

Like 201

When we use “like” as a preposition, we need to make sure any objects of the preposition are in the objective case.
I was surprised the search committee identified someone like him.
We don’t have to be a grammar whiz to get this right because “someone like he” would sound weird.

But as soon as we add a few words, our ear doesn’t help us as much.
I was surprised the search committee identified anyone like he or Harry.
That’s incorrect, of course. We need “him or Harry,” but “he or Harry” doesn’t sound so bad. We need to handle these constructions with care.

Like 401

Now we move to the graduate level. If the words following “like” contain a verb, turning the phrase into a clause, “like” is no longer correct – although this error is important only if you are fastidious about such matters or you are writing more formally. Examples:
Passable: I noticed you reacted like I did.
Correct: I noticed you reacted as I did.

Passable: Cheryl acted like she knew the entire story.
Correct: Cheryl acted as if she knew the entire story.
Correct: Cheryl acted as though she knew the entire story. 

So when our antennae are working, and we realize we were about to use the preposition “like” to connect to a clause, the simple solution is substituting “as,” “as if,” or “as though.”

Years ago, when TV was rife with cigarette commercials, we constantly heard “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” Grammar purists hated the slogan because the verb “should” at the end called for “Winston tastes good, as a cigarette should.” I imagine at least one person at the ad agency knew the slogan was imperfect, but it’s often good business to write the way most people talk.

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml.

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