I’m Like… uh …

I’m Like… uh …

My daughter recently had occasion to correct an administrator at a highly regarded independent school.  In a letter, that functionary referred to my daughter as an alumnus whereas she is, of course, an alumna.  The worse mistake would have been to refer to an individual graduate as an alumni, an error found almost universally.  Her willingness to step into the fray allows me to bring up today’s minor kerfuffle, the egregious use of the word like instead of the word as in comparing action or state of being.

I begin with the certainty that relatively few people hear the difference, care about the difference, or want to talk about the difference between the two words.  Once again, however, I am more than willing to lob another uninvited broadside into an uncaring universe.

I had the good fortune to come of age as a grammarian battle raged over the use of like in a commercial jingle.  The jingle was catchy and easy to sing –

“Winston tastes good (clap clap) like a cigarette should.”

One’s first thought may be that the proposition that the taste of any particular cigarette is what should be considered good is difficult to argue.  Questions of taste aside,to grammarians at mid-century, the use of the word like was offensive; they felt the proper locution ought to have been –

“Winston (sic) tastes good as a cigarette should (taste).”

If they were correct, as I contend they were, the difference between the two words must be found in the part of speech that each represents.  I am aware, by the way, that discussions of parts of speech rarely take place in ordinary discourse.  I stand accused of snobbery in raising issues of this sort, but the best sorts of discussions depend upon thoughtful awareness of nuance and shades of meaning, as in this consideration of words appropriate to specific circumstances.  David Foster Wallace, the most astute and brutally confrontational student of contemporary language, referred to himself (and those who share his outrage) as SNOOTS.  As he suggests, “A SNOOT can be loosely defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.”  That loose definition will suffice for the nonce; a treatise on SNOOTs will soon appear on a site near you. In an attempt to escape SNOOTISM, I’ll present this definition of a dysphemism.  In most cases, it is an  expression (figurative expression) that carries a negative connotation, often used to discount people.   “She’s a bitch” “He’s a prick” “You’re a pig”.

But for now, attention is on like and as.  The casual checker of grammatical correctness (i.e. normal person / not a SNOOT) may land on the first site presented, usually that hosted by the ubiquitous “Grammar Girl” from  which source the reader will learn that like is more properly employed as a preposition and as as a conjunction, a circumstance the Grammar Girl had not acknowledged until raging grammar battles have emerged.

As a SNOOT, I have to add to those who will listen that like can be used as a verb (I like lemurs/ I’d like a haircut, please), as a noun (I’d never seen the like of that beast.), and as a preposition or (rarely) as a conjunction.

So, what’s the problem?  Well, like as a preposition can mean typical, as in, “That’s not like you,” or such as as in, “My dog loves snacks like chips.”  In most sentences, the preposition can mean similar to, or in the manner of.   “I have an uncle just like that. ”

No problems there.

But … despite the protestations of the universe of casual speakers and writers, and recognizing that, yes, sustained contemporary usage does force modification and evolution of language, still…

Like is usually NOT a conjunction.  It does not join two independent clauses.

As actually CAN BE a conjunction.  It can and often does connect two independent clauses.

So what, you ask.  is the difference?

Let’s look at the infamous dilemma with regard to cigarettes:

“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” is incorrect in, oh, so many ways.  I’m not even going to worry about the use of the singular Winston, a fairly common first name, leading to conjecture that this writer will not explore. On the most significant level, the statement uses like as if it were a conjunction.

Look at the statement: “Winston Tastes Like A Cigarette”.  An unnecessary proposal, but it works  because the statement is essentially stating that Winston has the taste of a  cigarette, which is a NOUN.”  One could easily sell fruit by saying, “This chewing gum tastes like an orange.”  There’s no room for confusion if we remember that gum has no sense of taste; no implied verb arrives with the statement.

You look like a pig.  Uncomplimentary but not an incorrect composition, if the speaker means to compare appearances rather than the pig’s manner of looking at things.

You act like a pig.  Also a grim assessment, but flawed in its structure.  And yet…

Interestingly, the evocation of piggishness is something of a special case; almost all of the comparisons have become too familiar to avoid.  Even a SNOOT would have a tough time saying, “You act as a pig”.

So, things being as they are, (not things being like they are) most SNOOTS will writhe quietly when this particular grammatical injury arrives, recognizing that some battles may not win us many friends, and friendship is clearly more comforting in one’s declining years than grammatical precision.










I Am Too Much Of A Snoot!

I Am Too Much Of A Snoot!

Throughout the course of a long career as a teacher of English at a variety of independent schools, I curmudgeoned (sic)  my way through countless fruitless corrections of contemporary misusage of what I called “English as spoken by the company of educated men and women”.

The very notion of such a company struck my audiences as both unlikely and unfortunate.  Had such an evenly accomplished group of speakers and writers existed (and why would it?) , they argued, surely it would have had better things to do than to cavil about the distinction between words such as alumnus and alumni, say, or like and as – words that obviously mean the same thing in any reasonable conversation.

The sharper of my linguistically slovenly adversaries would point to my own weakness for whimsical constructions, such as the playful repurposing of a noun, “curmudgeon” into a verb, as above.  “Ah,” I’d retort, “but I can toy with language BECAUSE I know the rules,” essentially playing the “Don’t Try This Until You Join the Company of Educated Men and Woman” card.

I have softened over the years.  Some.  I do understand that language has to evolve to meet the needs of contemporary speakers.  Grotesqueries of construction still sting, but I can get through most ordinary exchanges with little injury.

However, like the compulsive who must check locks and burners, I seem to be unable to ignore the steady, droning, inclusion of the word ‘of’ where no ‘of’ is needed.  I hear it everywhere and from every quarter.

“He is too good of an athlete to miss that shot.”

“He was not that great of a writer.”

“It’s not that big of a city.”

Too long of a trip, too much of a bother, too scary of a movie, too belittling of a comment, too rancid of a smell, too futile of an effort, too complicated of an explanation… to infinity and beyond.

In the cranky nether regions of my understanding, the word ‘of’ is a truly exceptional preposition, carrying more than a dozen meanings.  

A block north of here – distance

The sow died of measles – causation, indicating result

A box of chocolates – containing or carrying

Songs of Norway – origination, derivation

Made entirely of cotton – composition

From the two of us – comprising a group

Cheated of my chance to succeed – separated from, distanced from

People of your persuasion – identity, association

Graduation brings a moment of celebration – purpose, setting aside

I’ll see you at quarter of eleven – until, before

He grew to a height of six feet – specificity

Chauncey had a love of baseball – direction, attachment

The pen of my aunt – possession

The fruits of my labor – production, origination

He gave his word of honor – possessive identity

Nice of you to come  – identifying personal quality


Not bad for a small word.  

Or, as far too many would observe, “Not that bad of a range for that small of a word.

Less is usually more, and in this case, genuinely better.

In closing, however, I must observe the one great exception to my caviling exasperation with the omnipresent ‘of’.

In learning of his sister’s untimely death by drowning, Laertes replies, “Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, and therefore I will forbid my tears.”

It’s a curious locution, slightly distancing, and the more effective in its awkwardness.  So, unless a writer or speaker has the extraordinarily nuanced command of  language as Shakespeare had, restraint in tossing ‘of’ around willy nilly remains valuable.

The keen observer will have noted the use of the word ‘as” rather than the word ‘like’ in the previous sentence, but more of that anon.