Like Quotative — is it Proper English now?

Have you, like, noticed that there’s a new word that everyone, like, uses all the time? It’s everywhere, and I hate to admit it, but I even find myself using it. It’s pervasive…not only from teenagers, but on television, in the movies, even in books.

“Like as a quotative — has spread like wildfire, with no ethnic or social confines. Over the last 25 years, the use of like to report quoted speech has swept across the English-speaking world. Nowadays a stretch of conversation may sound like this one:

He was like, “Where do you wanna go?”
I was like, “I dunno.”
He was like, “Okay.”
I was like, “Where are we going?”
He was like, “Don’t worry about it.”

Within the US, it isn’t just white or middle-class speakers who use the like quotative. Regardless of ethnicity or social class, virtually every young person uses it at least some of the time. And it’s not just young people any more, as the following two examples show:

When they said no one could figure out the Holy Trinity, I was like, “Why not?”

It was like, “Arthur, the deal here is we’re gonna listen to you but I’m makin’ my own cartoon.”

The speaker in the first example is Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, and the speaker in the second is filmmaker Robert Altman. Wilson was born in 1945, Altman twenty years earlier. (Wilson was quoted in an interview in the New Yorker, Altman in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.)” See full article here.

The headmaster at H’s school, Ann Teaff, is on a mission to eliminate the use of like as a quotative, or at least reduce it, among the student body at her school. The following is an excerpt of an essay Teaff wrote last year, that was published in the Tennessean.

“Precise wording and beautiful language lay the groundwork for our country, and we still hold precious our forefathers’ words. Language has the power to change hearts, to end wars, to inspire, to challenge. Yet as adolescents increasingly use shortcuts to express themselves, it is at great cost to vocabulary and grammar.
I was surprised to learn that like has new place in the dictionary. A colleague recently showed me its placement in an elementary grammar textbook. Will students soon be contemplating how to fit like speak into a sentence diagram? Like is now acceptably used as an adverb (I, like, almost died!), as a quotative or shortcut introduction to a quotation (I said, like, no way!).
It can also be used to paraphrase a sentiment (I was, like, what was he thinking?) Most often, though, like is used as an interjection. Like has replaced “um” and “er” as a way of stalling while we prepare our thoughts.
Although some may consider like speak merely an annoying trend, I argue that its movement into mainstream Americana is cause for concern.
A Wall Street Journal suggested like speak makes language more colorful and fun. However, the reporter writes, “when you ‘fun-up’ language, you trivialize thinking, fueling the already unhelpful suspicion among young teens that someone who talks seriously is ipso facto boring.” How unfortunate to think that the eloquent speeches of Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and others would, by that definition, be labeled “boring.””

I just wonder how my grandchildren, and their kids, will communicate in the future. With text messaging, instant messaging, and email, they barely ever have to write anything with a pen or pencil, they shorten their words and phrases to initials (OMG, LOL, ROFL, etc.), and now they’re inventing new uses for words that make no sense whatsoever. We don’t speak like the Quakers did anymore, but is “proper” English morphing into something we won’t understand in 50 years?

4 Comments

  1. He says that the eloquent speeches of Churchill, Kennedy, and Reagan are gone? He seems to fail to realize that the speeches of Reagan (and probably Kennedy too) would have grated against the ears of Churchill. So would have Churchill’s have grated against the ears of Shakespeare, as would Shakespeare’s on… well, you get the idea.He points to arbitrary examples of “precise” English because, well, there’s no such thing as “precise” English, so <>all<> examples are arbitrary. That being said, I will agree with him that language is eroding, but at the same time, who are we to make that judgment? None of us is in a position to control or dictate how language is to continue. This has been the problem since William Caxton way back when he brought printing to England.“Proper” English has been destroyed and rebirthed nearly every generation, and I don’t suspect the trend will stop.That’s just, like, the nature of language.

  2. Hello!I am MOST impressed with H’s article!and here in England this word, like, is appearing, like, everywhere too!

  3. Thanks, but H didn’t write the article, her headmaster did. I hear both sides of the argument. I believe we should try to limit the use of “likespeak”, but it’s probably an inevitable evolution of our language.

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