A new way of abusing the English language has emerged and I’m calling it out. The latest appearance came this morning in a Slate article about immigration policy:
Mitt Romney touted “self-deportation” as a solution to unauthorized immigrants, while figures like Iowa Rep. Steve King channeled grassroots intensity to torpedo comprehensive reform.
Chances are you didn’t find anything wrong there, but look again and consider how the word “like” affects the sense.
I hate to pick on the word “like.” It is a glorious word, with wonderful flexibility. And it already has problems enough. There are already two well-known ways of abusing it. The first is the quotative like, in which “like” takes the place of “said” or “replied” or “exclaimed” or some other more apt word: She was like, “I don’t want to cook,” but I was like, “I’m hungry,” so she was like, “Order a pizza or something,” and I was like, “But I’m hungry now!”
The quotative like sacrifices the nuance that comes with using the best word. It makes the point, but it is dull. The second abuse of like is as filler: “When you, like, get home you can, like, send me a text and I’ll, like, come over so we can, like, study.”
This is mostly harmless. It wastes time, but it doesn’t obscure meaning. I would never hire someone who talked like this, but I wouldn’t transport them to Australia, either.
The new abuse I have noticed occurs when the word is used to imply a relationship. The form is always: “[plural noun] like [one or more specific nouns].” A relationship is implied, but never explained or justified. Often the implied relationship doesn’t exist. Often the plural is obfuscatory because one case is all that is meant. Consider the following from the historical website biography.com entry for Napoleon Bonaparte:
Eventually the Jacobins fell from power and Robespierre was executed. In 1795 the Directory took control of the country, a power it would it assume until 1799. All of this turmoil created opportunities for ambitious military leaders like Napoleon. After falling out of favor with Robespierre, he came into the good graces of the Directory in 1795 after he saved the government from counter-revolutionary forces. For his efforts, Napoleon was soon named commander of the Army of the Interior.
Use of the plural word “leaders” implies there were more than one. But who were they? No rival French commanders are named in the article, and history shows that Napoleon’s lieutenants (Ney, Soult and the others) were mostly loyal and subordinate to him. Napoleon was one of the most power-mad people in history. Who else in revolutionary 18th century France was ambitious like him? Nobody!
What the writer means by the five-word combination is precisely this: Napoleon. Where five words are used in place of one, and where the five words communicate less information than the single word would, we’ve got a problem.
Giving examples is a good way to clarify a point. But it works only if the reader or listener knows what the relationship is — what the specific example is an example of. And that requires the speaker to state the relationship plainly before offering the examples. Let’s try one. Suppose I were to allude to “countries like Austria, Burkina Faso, Uzbekistan and Grenada.”
You might struggle to find a relationship among these distant and diverse places. They are not alike in any obvious sense. As it turns out, they are all countries I’ve been to. But it is not reasonable for me to expect you to understand or accept the association if I don’t explain the relationship. Iowa Rep. Steve King is a “figure” in Washington. But he isn’t the only one. I’m honestly unsure whether his channeling of grassroots intensity was common or unique.
A recent opinion column in the Washington Post set forth “The Progressive Case Against Boycotting States Like Indiana.” The headline implies a number of states are subject to boycott. But the article doesn’t mention any of them, nor does it list criteria that might be used to determine which states are boycott worthy. The writer was talking about Indiana specifically. “States like Indiana” was a metastasizing cancer on his otherwise healthy sentence.
Anyone serious about organizing an effective boycott needs to consider whether life is possible without the products being boycotted, and whether participants buy enough goods and services from the target to make a boycott hurt. A boycott of a place you never go to anyway is meaningless. So is declaring a boycott of a company you honestly can’t live without. Whether to boycott or not also depends on the likelihood that the target will back down. Indiana’s pusillanimous leadership backed down before a boycott got going. The 20 other states with similar laws would perhaps not have tumbled so quickly.
Some readers might protest, “I know what he means by “states like Indiana.” But you can’t know for sure – all you can know for sure is what you think he means. Your guess might be good or it might be lousy. But a good writer should not leave you guessing.
Let me be reasonable. I’m not objecting to all uses of the word “like” to signal examples or relationships. Here is a good example from a website called Flavor Facts:
Foods with particularly volatile aroma compounds, such as onions, garlic, and fish, must be quarantined from mild foods like apples, pears, and potatoes. Be careful with dairy products like milk, cheese, and butter, as they can intermingle with other foods in your refrigerator too.
The usage occurs twice here, and is apt in both cases. “Mild foods” is a meaningful description, and the examples that follow help the reader understand. Unlike the Napoleon and Indiana examples, more than one mild food exists, so the plural is proper. In the second case, milk, butter and cheese are the most common dairy products, and it makes sense to cite these in particular. Ice cream is also a dairy product, but it goes in the freezer away from the onions. Yogurt is a dairy product, but its impervious plastic container protects it. Kumiz, kefir and other ethnic specialties are rare enough to be left off a list meant for Americans.
I have one final example. Consider the follow remark from a popular internet forum. The commenter mentions that he has recently enjoyed the music of a German medieval-rock band called Corvus Corax. He then incongruously says:
There’s something special and unique about rock/metal produced during that time. There is a weight, an atmosphere, that only bands like Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin could produce. I’m guessing it’s because the drugs forced them to slow down and let their music breathe.
To begin with I’m perplexed by “during that time.” Black Sabbath debuted in 1969 and did its best work in the next two years. Pink Floyd formed in 1965 and waned after The Wall in 1979. Led Zeppelin started in 1968 and ended in 1980 after drummer John Bonham’s death. Corvus Corax formed a decade after the others disbanded or waned. There was no “that time” when all the groups were going at once. But that’s not important right now. What is important is the phrase “bands like Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.” This is troublesome because Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin are not very similar. For proof, I direct you to the excellent site Every Noise at Once. If you’re not familiar with it, Every Noise at Once uses a computer algorithm to plot 1200 or so musical genres on a two dimensional grid. Briefly: “Down is more organic, up is more mechanical and electric; left is denser and more atmospheric, right is spikier and bouncier.”
Based on its algorithm, Every Noise at Once classifies Black Sabbath as “stoner rock.” It classifies Pink Floyd as “progressive rock” or “album rock.” Led Zeppelin exemplifies “blues rock” or “classic rock.” Admittedly, these all fit into the electric, popular and modern portion of the grid. The screen grab above shows a small wedge of a massive spectrum that also includes barbershop, opera and house music. But the three are too far apart to group them without explanation. “Bands like Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin” also includes such intermediate genres as vegan straight edge, organic ambient, deep psychobilly, vaporwave, and my favorite: outsider.
Here’s George Orwell on the consequences of sloppy writing:
A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more because he drinks. The same thing is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Let’s halt this emerging abuse of like before it becomes standard. It is a product of careless writing by smart writers with important things to say.