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.