Like, OMG! ‘Like’ Is, Like, Totally Cool, Linguist Says

February 26, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 22 3 min read


If you have a teenager in your house, or if you just spend a lot of time around one, you may have found yourself patiently explaining that while the word “like” can mean many things, it isn’t a synonym for “said.” In fact, if you are under 40, you may have had this conversation with yourself. No element of modern speech, with the possible exception of all those business types using “impact” as a verb, comes in for as much abuse as what might be called “the Valley-Girl like.”

Meet Alexandra D’Arcy, who wants to destigmatize the contemporary use of “like.” In academic publications dating back to 2005, D’Arcy, a sociolinguist at the University of Victoria in Canada, has argued that the rise of “like” as a form of quotation has opened up new ways for people to narrate their inner thoughts in concrete, active terms in daily speech. Her work on the subject is detailed in her forthcoming book, Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context, due out in 2015.

“In writing, there’s a huge range of verbs that you can use and each of those evoke a different mood,” D’Arcy explains. “You can say: ‘she whispered,’ ‘she yelled,’ ‘she murmured.’ In speech, when you look at what people have been doing historically, really all you quoted was speech — ‘she said’ — and every once in a while you got a ‘think.’ What’s happened over the past 150 years is that we can quote so much more now. We can quote thought, or something that looks more like attitude. We can quote writing. We can quote sound. We can quote gesture. There’s a huge panoply of things we can quote and incorporate into our storytelling.”

She explains:

There used to be a time when my story might have been: ‘I saw her enter the room and I was terrified that she would recognize me and so I crouched down.’ Which is actually sort of boring. But now you can tell that as: ‘I saw her, and I was like, oh my god! I was like, what if she sees me? I was like, oh my god, I’ve gotta hide. I was like, what am I supposed to say to her?’ And it can go on. I’ve seen it where you have eight quotes in a row of strictly first-person internal monologue where that monologue becomes action. That’s new.

coverD’Arcy traces the expanded use of “like” to speakers born in the 1960s, but says the language feature came into its own with speakers born in the 1970s, “so that by the time you get to speakers born in the 1980s, you get these entire sequences of quotations that recreate an internal thought process.” This accords with the pop cultural history of the usage, which first became famous when Moon Unit Zappa (born 1967) accompanied her father Frank Zappa’s 1982 hit song “Valley Girl,” with an improvised monologue taken from slang she’d overheard at parties and at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. The same year, Sean Penn starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, partly filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, and the rest is, like, history.

Where some traditionalists see the use of “like” as a dialog tag as portent of cultural End Times, D’Arcy views it as an important tool for self-expression, allowing speakers to narrate their interior thought processes in dramatic and easily accessible ways. Some commentators, she concedes, view the new use of “like” as a window onto “the lionization of self” among the post-baby-boom generation. But whatever the verbal tic reveals about its speakers, D’Arcy sees its advent as a net positive for the language. “It’s a very creative resource for us,” she says. “It gives us a lot of flexibility in the way we tell stories and recreate action.”

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. End-times shmend-times. It’s just, like, not necessary. It’s a hiccup. It doesn’t expand the possibilities of internal dialogue. Of the examples given in the post, none of them are improved with “like” and all could do without it. “Like” is an affectation, and maybe the world IS, like, going to end because of, like, it.

  2. These so-called, like, quotative verbs are fascinating; a few yrs ago here in the UK this appeared: ‘this is me: xxx; this is her xxx’. See the sketches by Armstrong & Miller as RAF pilots using teen slang with high RP accents easily found on YouTube. Of course there are numerous other ways that ‘like’ is used as an apparently empty marker. Another factor in the prescriptive-descriptive debate as mentioned in the piece on Millions about, like, ads. I’ve used the MoonUnit video in my teaching of slang: it’s brilliant! Catherine Tate has a wonderful UK pastiche also easily found on YouTube.

  3. Oops, just read back my comment mad moments ago and realise I’ve implied that accents are easily found on YouTube: endorses the argument that solecisms are readily found in written texts that approximate to spoken language, as here. An omitted comma, as in my example above, can produce what language mavens love to pounce on as evidence of moral depravity and mental delinquency.

  4. One of my favorite Simpsons quotes ever is when a rapper (Ludacris, I think?) has his grammar corrected by Lisa and responds with “it’s idiomatic, beeyatch!”

  5. ” like” is not the problem. It is ” He goes, like…She goes, like… So I go like”…

  6. I don’t get the point the author is trying to make. “Strictly first-person internal monologue where that monologue becomes action” can be done just as well (better on my opinion) with words other than like.

  7. in Spanish there is a word, “muletilla”, which means using an unnecessary word to fill space or mask lack of verbal articulation…Spanish speakers will often pause and say “este, este” or “sabes que?”….in English we have no such word but incredibly slack use of “like, uh”…or “you know” or just a basic grunted “ugh”

  8. I , who am aged 68, was scolded as a teenager for excessive use of “like.” That, and my many other affectations of what I took to be hip speech, pissed my excessively literate father off to no end. Which. I recon, is why I used the word so often.

    I never, though, used “like” to mean “said.” For me, it was a way to stall, better than usages like “unh.” or some other grunt.

  9. In response to many of these responses:

    Year after year, generation after generation, this one-sided babble goes on: “You are not communicating properly when you say ‘___’,” or, “You can’t use ‘like’ that way; it doesn’t mean ‘___’, it means ‘___’.” And all the time, our language just goes on evolving.

    Consider this: the point is communication, the sharing of thoughts between minds. It requires a listener as well as a speaker, and listening is just as complex as speaking. The ‘listener’ who responds with, “No, no, that’s not the correct way to say…,” assumes he understands what is in the speaker’s mind and can state it better. And if slang obscures communication, this faulty listening is a thousand times worse.

    Young people — any people of a different linguistic generation — have unique thoughts and perspective we can only access though their minds, and only if we truly listen to them. It wii not happen unless we can suspend our linguistic self-righteousness.

    Oh, but how will they learn to communicate effectively if we don’t correct them? I have observed (I am an elderly teacher) the drive to communicate is primal and powerful. The desire to be heard is far more powerful than any external authority. If you want to strengthen someone’s communication skills, really listen to them, read their writing. (It’s okay to say, “I don’t understand.” That’s very different from, “You’re saying it wrong.”) When they realize they’re heard, they’re hooked. And that is enough to make them strive, themselves, to communicate well.

    I found D’Arcy’s ideas beautifully fresh and insightful.

  10. I find over-use of four-letter words such as ‘like’ to be boring, distracting and lacking in creativity.

  11. There are these things called ‘discourse markers,’ such as ‘uh,’ ‘so,’ ‘you know,’ and the like. By definition, a discourse marker does not change the meaning of the sentence, but it can imply an ambiguity or doubtfulness on part of the speaker. Sometimes they have no meaning at all, e.g. “I, like, went to the store” means they actually went to the store, rather than going on some sort of metaphorical trip. Do these people lack the confidence to positively assert a statement? Or are they one step removed from living their actual life, and live their lives in, like, simile?

  12. “Like” pertains to “likeness” as in “image.” It became the dominant discourse in, yes, the 1960s, 70s and 80s because of the ascendency of television. It wasn’t the slang of a few California trend-setters, and I don’t see how it represents some new feat of interiority (pace Ms. Darcy). Isn’t the more straightforward answer that “like” was the inevitable syntactic evolution for a culture that had become image-driven? To say “I was like ‘OMG!'” is to very quickly stitch together a flashbulb image with a couple words. It’s storytelling by channel switching — with all the vivid impressions (and shallow discontinuity) that comes with that.

    We should grumble about it when kids *write* that way. But I don’t think they can be stopped from *speaking* that way. To make it into some kind of cognitive achievement seems dubious to me, but I’m curious enough to read Alexandra’s book. What kind of verbal innovations may we expect as people try to translate the text of texting (txt) into speech?

  13. Although my entrance into my twenties marked my outgrowth of compulsively using “like” as a discourse marker, I still use “like” as a dialogue tag when recounting what other people said, because I feel it’s more accurate than “said”; I’m rarely quoting what someone else actually said, I’m paraphrasing (and thus, recounting what they were like in that moment).

  14. I like this post. I’ve always found the use of “like” to be perfectly valid in conversation– perhaps it’s all the “My So-Called Life” watching… and, like the exerpt from your story, the use of “like” can be stylistically powerful.

    Consider the opening line from Jay McInerney’s “Story of my Life”, told from the narrator who is a rich girl in her early 20s…:

    “I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.”

    So perfect in introducing her character and narrative voice. It’s effing genius.

  15. Social snobbery, style or whatever can dictate what we write, but language change happens because language is human. Deal with it. A political scientist who said that he doesn’t care about the election, but that people were just wrong in what they voted for would be being stupid. Like is basically ‘uh’, and believe it or not, not every speech is perfectly thought through before utterance, and even the greatest orators simply have to pause sometimes.
    @Karl: no difference whatsoever, possibly beyond ‘lol’. Language will take what it needs.

  16. OR – you could say: ‘When I saw her I thought, oh my god! What if she sees me? Oh my god, I’ve gotta hide. What am I supposed to say to her?’
    You don’t have to, like, say like.

  17. A really deft writer can capture what SOUNDS like actual speech but when examined carefully the best dialogue is a careful blend of the “natural” and the literate. Why, one could say it was artful. And the more “natural” a good dialogue sounds, the more art likely went into it, I’m guessing.

    Because try sitting in a Starbucks and transposing the conversations around you — usually mindnumbingly full of likes and ums and half-snorted guffaws and unfinished sentences. This really works in a verbal exchange, aided by facial cues, body language and even prior knowledge of the friend or events in question.

    But on the page? Sounding EXACTLY like speech gets so, you know, so, like, dull and repetitive. Like, the same thing over and over, you know? It might be, like, effective for awhile, but overuse of any stylistic tic gets, you know, tiresome. Like SO tiresome, right? I’m so, like, over it.

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