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Home > Publications > Quill > Writing: Like, As If You Didn't Know The Difference



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Thursday, April 13, 2017
Writing: Like, As If You Didn't Know The Difference

Words & Language Toolbox

By Paula LaRocque

When the ungrammatical jingle “Winston tastes good — like a cigarette should” appeared in the 1950s, it unleashed a national controversy over the proper uses of like and as. In fact, Walter Cronkite, then host of CBS News’ “The Morning Show,” disliked the error so much that he refused to read the offending words on the air, and an announcer had to do the deed.

It could have been what educators call a “teachable moment.” Instead, both ad and cigarette vaulted to the top of the U.S. market and remained there until the early 1970s.

And like and as errors — along with related likely and liken mistakes — continue apace to this very day:

Do like you are told. Pretty is like pretty does. Write like you speak. She looked at him like she hated him. Buy a computer like you would buy a car.

Like properly precedes nouns and pronouns but is in error when it precedes phrases and clauses. The five examples in the above paragraph are incorrect because in every case, like precedes a clause. (A phrase is a group of two or more grammatically related words. A clause is a group of grammatically related words containing a subject and a verb.) We correct such errors by deleting like and substituting as, as if or as though:

Do as you are told. Pretty is as pretty does. Write as you speak. She looked at him as if she hated him.

Correct: Buy a computer as you would buy a car.

Correct: Buy a computer as if you were buying a car.

Correct: Buy a computer as though you were buying a car.

We often find other errors in the “like” word family — with the word likely, for example. We might read: “The situation likely will worsen.” That’s wrong. The sentence should read: “The situation is likely to worsen” or “The situation will probably worsen.”

Avoid likely as a substitute for “probably.” Not all words ending with -ly are adverbs, and likely is not. It is an adjective, parallel to the adjective probable rather than to the adverb probably. Likely therefore acts as other adjectives do, with a “be” verb usually preceding: The situation is likely to worsen.

Incorrect: It likely will rain this weekend.

Correct: It is likely to rain this weekend.

Correct: It probably will rain this weekend.

Incorrect: They likely will go.

Correct: They are likely to go.

Correct: They probably will go.

Exception: These guidelines do not apply when the superlatives very or most precede likely:

Correct: They most likely will win. They are very likely to win.

Another often misused word in the “like” family is the word liken — especially when confused with the word compare:

“You have ideas that people need to hear, but don’t compare disagreement with your ideas to suppression.”

Liken would be a better word than compare for that writer’s context. Comparing deals with unlikes as well as with likes, with contrasts as well as with similarities. Also, it may be an extended rather than snapshot analysis. When focusing only on similarities, liken is more precise than compare. “Hitchcock likened Kelly to an ice princess” is more exact than “Hitchcock compared Kelly to an ice princess” because Hitchcock’s statement involved no actual comparison.

“He says comparing the rise of Trump to the rise of Hitler is easy, but he doesn’t say the comparison is inaccurate.”

Better: “He says likening the rise of Trump to the rise of Hitler is easy, but he doesn’t dispute the likeness.”

The colloquial “feel like” — instead of think, believe, imagine, reflect, etc. — is an inelegant expression that seems to be gaining traction: “Don’t you feel like there’s a creative you inside your cerebrum, just itching to get out?” Once again, all we have to do to improve the sentence is delete “like”: Don’t you feel there’s a creative you inside your cerebrum ...

A note on the use of “-like” as a suffix: When coining such terms as “godlike,” “childlike,” “manlike,” such terms are usually hyphenated when a word ending in L abuts a words beginning with L. For example: “devil-like.” However, when the coined word has three L’s, it is always hyphenated: “bull-like.”

We’ve reached the end of this column without even mentioning what some linguistic experts call the “casualism” of using like instead of said when describing a conversation. He’s like, “Don’t do that.” And I’m like, “Yeah? Well, don’t tell me what to do.” And he’s like, “Somebody should.” And I’m like

I mean. Don’t get me started! ***

Paula LaRocque is author of five books, among them “The Book on Writing.” Her latest fiction is a mystery novel, “Monkey See,” available on Amazon.com. Email. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com

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