The high-school teacher's bugbear, the word "like" – used indiscriminately in speech, meaninglessly, as verbal spam – is often used as evidence of the failing brains of contemporary youth. Speech randomly punctuated by likes makes no sense to someone over 45, and so must be a result of all those years of video games and a lack of reading assignments in schools. Such verbal indiscipline is the concretization, it is said, of the failures of contemporary education. The young are simply less articulate than we were.
It was inevitable that a defiant pro-like backlash begin. A couple of essays in defence of like have recently been published, by articulate and educated people. The first salvo was from education columnist Paula Marantz Cohen, an English professor at Drexel University, writing in The American Scholar. "The use of 'like' by young people does not signal an irreversible linguistic decline," she asserts. She admits that like is used among her students as a "marker for uncertainty," but she does not see this as a flaw in their language, rather as an added nuance. To Cohen, acknowledging "an approximation of meaning" is useful, for "the right word may not exist." She herself has used it in a lecture on Milton, preceding the word "believe." She explains, "Here, 'like' gives the listener a bit of latitude in how to understand 'believe.'" She concludes, only partly joking I think, "It's also a good way to, like, ease into a conclusion."
After this essay appeared, Katy Waldman, writing in Slate, wrote a follow-up, agreeing with Cohen and adding a couple of arguments of her own. She says that like can convey an "emotional accuracy." If, for example, you say "the bakery is, like, two seconds away" you are making it clear that you are not speaking literally. You are conveying "the subjective experience of convenience." And it's quicker and easier, and presumably more poetic, to say this than to dully explain exactly how far the bakery is (by saying, for example, the bakery is exactly four minutes' walk).
Furthermore, she argues, filler words create a pause, and studies show that verbal fillers (such as "uh") can make listeners more attuned to the words that follow. The slight pause apparently aids mental processing of instructions.
Generally, Waldman wants to accept imprecision as a kind of honesty. She says, "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."
That strikes me as a terribly depressing, depressed and fatalistic approach, one that contradicts every instinct I have about the power of language. How sad to believe that language is not capacious or precise enough to express anything you want. Are we sure it isn't? Surely reading just a few pages of Proust or Nabokov or Woolf will alleviate one's fear on that score? Isn't capturing the elusiveness of experience precisely what those writers do best?
It's funny – I really want to be on the side of youth on this one. It seems so much more sensible to be flexible about the evolution of language, to respect its irrational tics as charming and always, in some way, meaningful.
But not one of these arguments is convincing to me. Is a university professor of English really not sure how to allude to the mercurial nature of faith? (Isn't mercurial a more interesting word than like?)
I'm also pretty sure that if I told you the bakery was two seconds away, you'd understand that I was speaking hyperbolically. Does the addition of like make it any more clear? Or funnier? And am I really being a pedant to point out that it is not impossible or even uncommon to tell someone exactly how many minutes it takes to walk to the bakery?
Nor am I convinced that the addition of like to a sentence creates a pause the way an "uh" or an "um" does: Like-filled sentences can be just as fluid and rapid-fire as any other; indeed, teenagers' speech often seems faster to me than others'. It's a real stretch to try to convince me that this style generates greater clarity or comprehension – particularly as we've all just come through a couple of weeks of hearing recordings of Martin Luther King's speeches all over the media. That anniversary was bad timing for the pro-like crowd.
I still like talking to teenagers. But there is some wisdom I feel they can gain from me: In particular, I can share the happiness I have in knowing that we do in fact already live in an ideal world in which language is capacious and precise enough to express anything we want. This is not grumpy of me; it is generous.