Do you, like, like the word like?

My first edition of this column was of an introductory nature. Due to the relatively short nature of these columns, in my Introductory Edition I did not go into all of the reasons for engaging in this exercise. One of the reasons, and that is precisely the case now, is that I am trying to understand something that frankly, I am having a very difficult time with. Here is the best example I can think of. This language phenomenon is so baffling to me that I don’t know where to turn to make sense of it.

English is suffering from a plague of fillers. Fillers are those words people throw into a spoken sentence while they are thinking about what to say. I don’t have a problem with the occasional filler. I sometimes even say “well” or “actually” or something similar. But the rampant use of fillers (“you know”, “I mean”, and “like”) has become nothing less than epidemic.

I was recently wondering if this is just happening in the United States. I don’t believe that is the case, but more study is required. I do know that I have spent some time recently in the company of a young man from England who is temporarily in the U.S. working as a soccer coach. We are all soccer fans in my family, and two of my grandchildren are playing the sport. This English person has been a part-time instructor, and to show our hospitality we have invited him to our home a few times. One evening we watched a couple of games after dinner. Before long I noticed something. The very nice young man from Newcastle could not utter a single phrase, clause or sentence without the word ‘like’. Don’t tell me that the epidemic has spread to England!

One of the important points I try to make when I am teaching my students and coaching people on good oral communications skills is that there is nothing wrong with a few moments of silence now and then. If someone is giving a presentation, during which it is unlikely that the audience will interrupt, the speaker can, and should, have occasional moments of silence. This might be for dramatic effect, or it might be used to give the speaker an additional few seconds to reflect on an important point. Regardless, it is not a bad thing and might even get listeners to pay more attention.

I would say the same holds true during times of dialogue. Our brains are capable of operating at lightning speed, but our voices simply cannot keep up. Thus, fillers are sometimes used during those few moments when we are connecting our thoughts, thinking about the right word or phrase to describe something. Some of the traditional fillers are ‘Well’, “Let’s see” and “Actually”. I am not suggesting that fillers be eliminated. I am suggesting that the frequency of fillers is the problem, and that a moment or two of silent reflection is completely acceptable.

The best example of a filler that has gotten out of control is ‘like’. The word ‘like’ has been around for a long time. It won’t serve any purpose to explore the etymology, but for centuries, at least back to Shakespeare’s time, the word has had two basic uses in English. The first one is as a transitive verb (those verbs that must have an object with them). I like Italian food. I like opera, and I like to take power naps. That is pretty simple.

The second use, if we want an easy way to remember it, is as substitute for ‘similar to’. “This song by Norah Jones is like (similar to) that one.” One additional use of the word like that I might be able to understand (but not really accept or ever use myself) is as a substitute for ‘approximately’. Someone might say, “I have like four hundred friends on Facebook.” This should not be confused with having ‘Likes’ on Facebook. Someone may be thinking, “Hey, ‘like’ can also be a noun.” That is true. We can say, “I have a number of likes”. However, this is not a popular expression today, and there are plenty of substitutes for that use of like.

There really are no other traditional uses for the word like. Today, however, like might be the most often used word in the language. How many times I have heard something similar to this (for example, while eavesdropping on the bus as a commuter)? “Wow, it was like a really nice weekend. We, like, went out to the park, and it was like, beautiful. I like went hiking and then came home and like chilled for a while, and later, I was like, wow, really worn out by the hike.” (I was more worn out by the person’s repetition of like.) If that person had removed every instance of the word like from that narrative the meaning would not have changed at all, and the point could have been made in less time and with greater clarity.

So, how did this begin? I have tried to think about the origins of the non-traditional uses of like. I could go back to my undergrad days – oh, no, that is too far back (and in another century!). Let’s say we go back twenty years or so. I don’t recall the ubiquitous use of like back then. It might have been used sometimes, but nothing to the degree it is used today. What I do recall is when one of my children was in high school during the early 1990s I overheard conversations between my son and his friends and there was ‘like’, popping up quite frequently. I asked my son about that, and he was oblivious to the issue. I saw the ‘What are you talking about’ expression on his face. He didn’t really understand. Fortunately, he did not emulate his friends to the degree they used like.

Isn’t it interesting that when we pay attention to something, perhaps for the first time really, we notice it more frequently? We have all experienced this. Well, all of a sudden, or so it seemed to me, everywhere I turned there was the pesky and irritating ‘like’. At first it was confined to young people. I was accustomed to words and expressions that became almost instantly popular, and when that happened it seemed that the whole world was using it. My favorite example comes from my high school years when I was living in Hawaii. The word that suddenly appeared, and was required in almost every other sentence, was ‘bitchin’. I must admit I adopted it for a while myself.

I continued to ponder this phenomenon and wonder about its longevity. Surely the use of like would be just another linguistic transient, similar to ‘bitchin’ in the 1960s. Then, something truly amazing happened. There was an open house at my son’s high school early in his junior year. My wife and I were able to attend the classes that evening that mimicked our son’s schedule. I only remember going to one of those classrooms. It was the English classroom, and there was the teacher, a man in his mid-thirties, who provided some insights into his class. I don’t remember exactly what he described, but I will never forget the pattern that I quickly noticed. Here is what I remember hearing that evening:  “I like to have them read, and like think about what they are reading. It’s like, you know, they need to, like, be exposed to this great literature. And, like, they will be writing a lot also. I mean, it is I important to, like, make the connection between reading literature and writing.”

Oh no! My son was not only becoming linguistically infected with the word like from his peers, even the teachers were contagious! How was that possible? The worst part of it all, of course, was the fact that it was his English teacher who was using those fillers. I left the classroom in disbelief, but at least I was coming closer to an understanding of the matter. One issue here is that people often imitate other people in their forms of speech. Nevertheless, if I were an epidemiologist searching for the origins of some strange disease, I believe I would have an easier time than trying to determine how like, and all of the other popular fillers today, have spread so quickly. All I know is, when somebody asks me, “Do you, like, like this movie?” I sit there wondering what that questions means. I also realize that just a little bit more of my sanity has seeped away.

In my next submission I will explore the psychological origins of fillers. I have a feeling there will be plenty of my blog editions on this topic of fillers, so please return so I can share my investigations and discoveries with you. Now, do you (‘like’) like what I have written so far? (‘I mean’) If you do, and (‘like’) you want to, (‘you know’) understand this topic better and (‘I mean’) try to (‘like’) see if there is, (‘you know’) something we can do about it, please stay (‘like’) tuned in. I trust I have made my point.

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Introduction to English XXI

I am writing a series of essays, or blogs, on the subject of the English language in the 21st century. In this opening essay I will provide some background on myself and describe my qualifications for being an authority on English. I will describe what it is that motivates me to write about English, and why I feel it is important to keep the flame burning for preserving our language.

I am in my seventh decade now. In my sixty-plus years I have been to a lot of places and experienced much. I have lived in about ten states here in the U.S., from such disparate places as Englewood, NJ and Pearl Harbor, HI. I have resided in three foreign countries and travelled to about forty-five nations.

I had an early introduction to other cultures and languages. In 1956 my father, a career Marine Corps officer, was sent for a tour of duty to France. We lived just a short drive from Versailles, in the western suburbs of Paris. Even though I was very young, that time in Europe had a profound effect on my intellectual development.

When living in France I got my first exposure to a foreign language. We lived in a military compound and my brother and I went to a school for expatriates where all the instruction was in English. Nevertheless, I had plenty of opportunities to learn some French. I recall an elderly lady who was my babysitter on many occasions. I did not learn to speak French fluently, unfortunately, but my brain was still being programmed for language, and that was an essential phase for developing a “knack” for foreign languages.

When we returned to the U.S. my experience in France started to fade, and I became immersed in the more traditional cultural environment of middle class America. Except for a few after-school French classes when I was in the fourth grade, I just let the French exposure slowly erode until it has like a distant dream.

Things changed when my father was sent for a tour of duty to Hawaii. This was in the mid-1960s, and as chance would have it I had the opportunity to attend one of the premiere private schools in the U.S. I went to Punahou School for ninth and tenth grades. That is the same school Barack Obama would go to and graduate from. According to my calculations, President Obama arrived one year after I left.

There were countless things that were special about Punahou. There was one that was particularly important to me. My academic advisor told me I had to choose a foreign language when I was registering for tenth grade. French would have been the natural choice, right? Well, I opted for Spanish instead. I can’ explain my choice, but it is what I went with. I can still see the face of my first Spanish teacher as clearly as if I had just come from school today. Señora George was an immigrant from Cuba, who had apparently married an American soldier who was sent to Hawaii.

Señora George either didn’t speak much English or she totally bought into the progressive language philosophy that was accepted by Punahou. That philosophy was based on total immersion as the best way to get a strong start on a foreign language. The few times Señora George spoke English, as far as I can remember, it was hard to follow her. We watched slide shows, listened to tapes, and repeated dialogues over and over. One of the lines stuck in my head, and I remember it even today. It involved a dialogue between two students travelling around Madrid. One of them gets on a crowded bus and states, “Francamente, no aguanto tener que viajar como sardinas en lata.” Translation – “Frankly, I can’t stand to travel like sardines in a can.”

I went into that course a doubting Thomas, but I came out at the end with the best Spanish accent of anyone in the class. After decades of thinking about it, I realized what had happened. My time in France had given me the cognitive programming I needed to pick up a foreign language. Many years later I would read about language development and learn that children go through a period of programming for language that lasts until puberty. Something happens at about that time, and we stop that programming.

I would go on to study Spanish for years. I even chose Spanish as my major in undergraduate school at the University of Virginia. This helped me with one of my most important life lessons. When you are good at something, stay with it because you can make great progress. That is a huge element in the reinforcement of learning. I understand that there are other things that can reinforce learning as well. In my case I went with what worked for me. I have proved my success many times through the years. The statement I have heard countless times over the last forty years when I was speaking Spanish with a native speaker is something like this:  “You look like an American, but you sure don’t sound like one. Where are you from, anyway?”

You might be wondering what all of this has to do with English. I am going to get to that now. My years of studying and practicing Spanish forced me to learn more about English. When I had to conjugate Spanish verbs in the present perfect and the past subjunctive, I had to equate those to verb forms in English. When I learned new adjectives, prepositions, gerunds and modifiers in Spanish, I had to make sense of them in terms of English also.

Many years later, I was truly put to the test in my own, native English. I was going to school to get my doctorate and needed a work routine that would permit me to both do research and make some income. I happened upon a job as an ESL – English as a Second Language – instructor, and I ended up working in that profession for over five years. I also did translation and editing work in Spanish and English. Another of my fundamental life’s lessons is this – if you want to really learn a subject deeply, teach it.

For five years I taught English, and it wasn’t enough to tell my students, “That’s just the way it is in English.” I had to explain everything to my students. If there was something I didn’t completely understand, I had to find out what the reason was and explain it.

All of this time I was increasing my knowledge of the English language. I should also add here that I have been an avid reader all my life. Some of my earliest memories are of my father reading to me at bedtime. He would read me a story while I listened and looked at the illustrations. Some of those stories, which I have not heard for more than fifty years, are still familiar to me. Naturally, I developed an interest not only in reading, but in books as well. Listening to stories, and then reading books on my own, would instill in me a deep desire for books and a great appreciation of imagination.

I wish that when I was a little older, around high school age, I had kept a log of all of the books I read. By the time I finished high school, the number had to have been in the hundreds. As the old expression goes (roughly), I have forgotten about more books that most people have read.

All of the reading, and the language study (which includes formal instruction in Italian, German and Portuguese in addition to the Spanish) for the last sixty years or so have turned me into something of a language freak. This is particularly true when it comes to English. Every time I read something, and every time I hear someone speak, I notice the use of English. This is especially true in oral communications. I assume that when works are published, for the most part, that the authors are at least somewhat proficient in the language. I notice mistakes or inconsistencies, but those things are not very common.

It is a completely different story when it comes to oral communication. The deterioration of the average person’s ability to clearly communicate his/her ideas is nothing short of shocking. I have gotten to the point that when I hear someone speak, whether that is a sales associate at a department store or a so-called pundit on one of the cable news shows on television, I focus on two things. The first is the subject matter, and the second is the ability of the speaker to effectively communicate using English. Sometimes I focus so much on the latter that I lose interest in the former.

In a manner of speaking my close attention on a person’s communications skills is a curse (although I don’t believe in curses per se), because it means that my language monitor is on all day, every day. Every time a person uses a filler, I notice. Every time a person switches perspective in the middle of a sentence, I notice. Every time someone uses a misplaced modifier, I notice. Do I need to say more to make my point?

It is important that I state something else at this point. I do not expect everyone to use the best possible English grammar in every instance. I understand that English is a difficult language with countless grammatical pitfalls. There are times when I have doubts and have to look up something. I know that in our educational system in the U.S. we do not spend enough time reinforcing the elements of good verbal skills. I also know that languages evolve over time, and that some rules, even steadfast ones, may need to be updated by new ones.

However, we cannot simply let the language just randomly drift in any direction. There must be some rules that are maintained. If that doesn’t happen, then at some point we might say that ‘anything goes.’ If anything goes, then at some point the meaning of words, and the construction of phrases, clauses and sentences will lose their meaning. Then, how will we communicate our ideas clearly? What would happen to civilization as we know it, if we can’t communicate our ideas?

In these essays I will mostly discuss the problems that I notice. These are not isolated problems, rather they are problems that are becoming ubiquitous. Some people who read these essay are going to think I’m being overly picky, or old-fashioned, or that I sound like an old codger who would prefer to revert to the past. I don’t believe any of those things are the case. My objective is to ensure that we maintain the essential ingredients of our English language so that we can be efficient communicators. I hope you find my essays informative and even entertaining at times.

Quote

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so sure of themselves but wiser people so full of doubts.”

Bertrand Russell

Please check back here soon for my formal introductory blog essay on the subject of The English Language in the 21st Century. If you are dedicated to using proper style, organization and grammar in all forms of communication, and if you get perturbed when you see and hear the language being horribly deteriorated, then you will want to follow my posts.