In Defense of "Like"
I once went on a local NPR station in what I believed was a very polite state—Wisconsin, to be specific—to discuss my upcoming humor book. The interview went off without a hitch (it was about 12 seconds long), but a month later, I received an email from a man complaining that I’d used the word “like” every other word. I was livid; I said like at most every three words. And why did he care!? I thought about everything I'd do to get back at this rude emailer; I briefly considered trying to find his grandkids and tell them to teach their grandfather some manners! Ultimately, I took the high road and decided to let it go (his name was also John Smith, so I didn’t have much hope of tracking him down). I'd be lying if I said the thought of it didn't still cause the occasional fume.
It’s not just that I think criticizing people for abusing the word “like” is misogynistic (though, that too), and it’s not just that I think people shouldn’t email random strangers they hear on the radio (though, that too). It’s because I think the word “like” is important. It means something. There's a difference between how we speak and how we write. In spoken communication, "like" has a significance.
I have a podcast (Raising Questions, please listen!), and I use a tool called Descript to edit the episodes. Descript transcribes the entire podcast and gives me an option to remove all “filler words.” It’s a fantastic tool; I could easily cut five minutes of filler out of my episodes with the click of a button. But I began to notice there were some sentences that didn’t quite make sense, as though a word were being skipped. As though two clauses were glued together; as though two pieces of dry bread were stuck together absent all peanut butter. My sentences were quick and nonsensical. But when I read through the transcripts of these episodes, nothing seemed wrong. All the words were there.
I thought the problem might be some sort of technical glitch, until I discovered I had an option to see which "filler" words were removed. I went through the list—”um,” “uh,” “I guess.” No, those words were all fine to cut. I suppose I was technically misquoting my guest if I represented their thoughts as true facts, instead of things they guessed were true facts, but that’s the risk you take when you come on a podcast. But then, I saw it. The program was deleting the word “like.” Those were the sentences that felt abbreviated; the ones that required a transition. “Like” means something. It’s not filler. And I don’t guess that it’s not filler—I know it’s not filler.
I’m not going to sit here and define what “like” means. That’s patronizing—you know what it means, and you know how to use it, and you certainly know what other people mean when they say it. Besides, there are too many uses. It shows that you're about to quote something, or give an example, or state a feeling that you can't quite classify as a fact. I’m going to instead tell you that if you’ve ever wanted to stop saying “like,” you should give up the fight. Start bird-watching instead; that would be a better use of your time, even if you never see a single sparrow. Because “like” has a meaning—even if you need your AI-powered podcast editing tool to remove it en masse before you fully appreciate what that meaning is. It’s, like, a real word. So use it.
*For each moot, we generate a cover image using DALL·E, an AI art platform that generates images using natural language processing. This image on the right was generated using the title, 'In Defense of "Like"' in the style of Salvador Dalí.