This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.
Harry Blamires, as he shows us in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’, doesn’t care for sentences such as I’m making it sound like we didn’t get on. The correct version, he maintains would be I’m making it sound as if we didn’t get on. Here’s his reason:
The objection to like used thus is that it is an adjective. . . . But the word like used as used in the faulty sentence . . . is made to function as a conjunction, hingeing on a verb and linking two clauses together . . . This is a function that the adjective like cannot perform.
He also considers the slightly different use of like in a sentence such as ‘You get a bill a few weeks later like you would with a Visa.’ He writes that:
The same judgement applies to this misuse. It treats like as a conjunction, as a word that can link ‘You get a bill’ with ‘you would with a Visa’.
Is he right? R L Trask in ‘Mind the Gaffe’ seems to think so, when he writes:
In formal English, like cannot be used as a conjunction. Though common in speech, the usage illustrated by *‘We should proceed like we did last time’ must be avoided: write ‘We should proceed as we did last time’.
Peter Harvey in his ‘A Guide to English Language Usage’ takes a similar view. Under the heading ‘wrong uses’ of like, he writes:
Like should not be used to mean, for example: Cities such as (not like) Liverpool, Manchester, and Leeds . . .
It should not be used instead of as if: You look like you want a drink.
He does, however, add that ‘Both of these forms are widely used by native speakers’, and his advice must be seen in the context of a guide for foreign learners of English, who will not go wrong if they use as and as if .
The OED’s comment on the use of like as a conjunction is:
Now generally condemned as vulgar or slovenly, though examples may be found in many recent writers of standing.
As always, however, the OED makes it clear that it does not necessarily share the condemnation.
Pam Peters, in her article in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, and with corpus evidence to support her, is not among thos who condemn this use of like:
With all this evidence of conjunctive use, like seems to have regained much of the ground lost to prescriptivist objections of C19 and C20. They were not in fact endorsed by Fowler (1926), who distanced himself from condemnation at the start with ‘if it is a misuse at all.’ He invites ‘the reader who has no instinctive objection to the construction [to] decide whether he shall consent to use it in talk, in print, in both or in neither.’ There never was a general principle as to why like could not be used conjunctively, and it is now strongly supported by corpus data from around the English-speaking world. Fowler would have smiled.
‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ surveys the topic in its typically thorough manner, and it, too, comes down on the side of acceptance:
To summarize the controversy: like has been in use as a conjunction for more than 600 years. Its beginnings are literary, but the available evidence shows that it was fairly rare until the 19th century. A noticeable increase in use during the 19th century provoked the censure we are so familiar with. Still, the usage has never been less than standard, even if primarily spoken.
The belief that like is a preposition but not a conjunction has entered the folklore of usage. Handbooks, schoolbooks, newspaper pundits, and well-meaning friends for generations to come will tell you all about it. Be prepared.
In fact, I’m not sure that conjunctival like does now attract the hostility it once did, and it may therefore belong in the Negative Pool rather than the Negative Canon.