My two favorite words are still “axiom” and “myriad.” Say them with me “ax – ee – umm” . . . “mere – ee – aaaad.” Good three-syllable words. Strong words. Words like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” Pretty words.
But this article isn’t about my favorite words. It’s about the word I have recently decided to hate.
Last week I was flying back from a week of grant writing assistance in Alaska. About 10 hours into my travels, I heard the young lady in the plane seat behind me say the following sentence. Read it aloud and try to guess which word is my least favorite: “Like I was like what’s wrong with like that and he was like I like guess it’s like ok.”
If you guessed the word “ok,” you’re wrong. My new least favorite word is “like.” And she used it six times in the same sentence. Ack!
Actually, “like” is a great word when used correctly—and sparingly. The word “like” establishes a comparison to help the reader or listener understand some topic or concept. To communicate a new idea or some characteristic, we compare the thing to something familiar.
For example: Puppies are like five-year-old children on permanent sugar highs. Just to be clear, puppies are not really five-year-old children. They are like (i.e., similar to, resembling) five-year-old children. This is a simile. However, it is this distinction that makes the overuse of this word such a problem. If I say, “I’m like ok,” for example, then I am NOT ok. I’m only similar to “ok.”
Sentences such as “I was like, what are you doing?” simply don’t make sense. This sentence is using “like” to create a simile, but what is being compared? Do I resemble “what are you doing?” No. When I heard that sentence I was like a dog choking on a bone.
As I mentioned earlier, using “like” to create similes is fine when infrequent. This is not an issue with the word “like” but with similes in general. When you are communicating a complex or foreign idea, they can be useful. When you are using them for no other reason than to create an artistic effect, they are unnecessary.
The overuse of similes is a sure sign of an amateur writer. A writer who uses too many similes is like a child drawing with only one color of crayon. Clever at first, but quickly becoming dull. An experienced, professional writer rarely needs them because he or she will have the ability to describe things as they are. Additionally, because direct similes using “like” are so obvious to the reader, and often sound forced when frequent, good writers will rely on implied similes.
For example, the sentence, “Our chief of staff, a wolf in disguise, fired the unsuspecting clerk” compares the chief of staff to a wolf, perhaps a wolf in lamb’s wool. This is not a metaphor because it implies that the chief of staff is similar to a lion in disguise. For another example of an implied simile, the phrase “late night yawns of death” compares the process of dying in old age to the process of falling asleep. According to this implied simile, they are similar. And the writer didn’t need to use “like” even once. Yeah!
Do I catch myself using “like” like the girl on the plane? Yes, sometimes. This abuse is so prevalent in society that it begins to sound normal, and it sometimes slithers into my speech (another implied simile). You won’t find it in my formal writing or, I hope, my formal speech. Because, like, that would be like so wrong.
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