I’m Like, I Said

Or, In Defense of a Much-Loathed Linguistic Trend

So I was talking to my boss the other day and I was like, “Does anyone know what they’re doing on this project?” And he was like, “I wish.”

Now, what did I just say there?

People have been lamenting the decline of the verb to say for a surprisingly long time — at least as long as I’ve been around, which is enough. When I was growing up, the culprit was goes:

“So he goes, ‘What are you doing this weekend,’ and I go, ‘Going to a stupid family reunion’.”

I never liked goes very much. As a writerly type, I always felt an obligation to speak properly, whatever that meant, and to not give in to imprecision, trends, laziness or other bad linguistic habits. (That doesn’t mean I correct other people when they do it, but that’s for another post.) In college I took some linguistics courses — well, all of two, but it didn’t take much to change the way I think about language. The thing that struck me most was the distinction linguists make between being descriptive and prescriptive. As far as I had always known, as far as I had ever been taught, the only relevant issues concerning writing, speaking and language related to what you should do. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. (Actually, it’s OK to do that.) Avoid double negatives. Make positive statements rather than negative ones (“I forgot” versus “I didn’t remember”). It hadn’t really occurred to me that it was possible to take a different stance: that of the impartial observer, dissecting the ways in which people bend and shape the language to suit their needs, just as they’ve been doing ever since they started talking.

That’s the other thing that a few linguistics courses will do for you (well, that and some Old English courses): give you an appreciation for how old this language of ours is, how many competing influences it has absorbed and how its speakers have worried about and denounced what their fellow speakers have been doing to it since long before people started replacing said with like. I’m not suggesting that because linguistic standards are always in flux that there’s no reason to enforce them; I’m no anarchist. On the other hand, it’s difficult to get too worked up over a process that is not only inevitable but healthy: without people using English however they damn well pleased, we wouldn’t have the rich, endlessly adaptable tongue that has become the closest thing on the planet right now to a universal language. It’s a good thing that English is changing right under your feet, because that means it’s still alive, and it’s not going to wait for you to get on board as it grows and evolves.

If you start noticing a widespread trend, it usually indicates some aspect of the language that had become inadequate and needed shoring up. Here’s a simple example: the phrase “beg the question” refers to a logical fallacy in which the speaker assumes his own conclusion or uses a restatement of his conclusion as evidence. “We’ve always done it this way because that is our established procedure” is begging the question. Chances are good that you use it differently. “He went out every night this week without calling her, which begs the question of who he was out with.” It doesn’t beg the question — it prompts the question, or suggests the question or leads to the question. But those phrases lack a certain oomph, and “begs the question” was there, minted and ready to be picked up and adopted by those who needed it. To say that they’re using it incorrectly at this point is futile. If a great many people use a word or phrase in a way that makes sense and is mutually intelligible, how can it be wrong?

Which brings us back to like. Linguistically I’m still too much a of a tight-ass to use like very much. But I like like. I like it because to me it can fill a very specific function. Let’s consider two examples:

My boss told me he wasn’t happy with my work, and I was like, “The feeling’s mutual.”

My boss told me he wasn’t happy with my work, and I said, “The feeling’s mutual.”

You can see the distinction right away. To say that you were “like” something means “my initial reaction to this was.” To say that you said it means, obviously, that you spoke it aloud. Like encapsulates a spontaneous emotion or a thought that isn’t quite articulated — possibly the most memorable moment of an interaction. The word is also something of a double-edged sword, because you can be “like” something you never spoke aloud. To elaborate on our example above:

My boss told me he wasn’t happy with my work, and I was like, “The feeling’s mutual,” but I just told him I’d try to do better.

Most people would find that a perfectly comprehensible sentence: you thought one thing, but spoke another.

My preferred way of using like, when I do, is a bit different. Convinced as I often am that I’m being boring, I tend to be concise when I talk, and if I’m reporting a conversation I usually try to impart the essence of it without getting into the nitty-gritty details, which in all likelihood I don’t remember anyway. So I might say something like this:

Bob came over to me and was like, “You agreed to pay me fifty bucks,” and I was like, “No I didn’t; I told you I can’t afford to pay you that.”

This conversation was probably longer, involving several supplementary exchanges as well as some profanity, which I might be eliding in deference to the sensibilities of my audience. By attributing the utterances with like, I am (at least in my own mind) saying, “This is the essence of what was said, but you should not quote me verbatim or think this sums up the entire exchange.” I do this because I am enough of a linguistic tight-ass (see above) that when I use the word said, I take it literally: if I don’t relate as precisely as possible the words that someone used, then it means I’m sort of lying. “OK, so first you said Bob called you a ‘festering wad of day-old horse offal,’ and now you’re saying he actually called you a ‘steaming pile of day-old horse offal’. Can you let me know when you get your story straight?”

Obviously not many people share my little tics when it comes to like and said. But it’s worth the effort to come to some sort of accommodation with this. Like may go away; people don’t say goes as much as they used to, and it’s possible that said will make a comeback. It’s even more likely that some new euphemism will take its place. What about straight-up to be? That one’s happening already: “So then she’s all, ‘Get out of my face!'” Whatever it proves to be, we have evidently decided as a culture that to say doesn’t get the job done. I’m pretty confident this clever language of ours will adapt to help us out.