The Negative Canon: As You Like It

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.


Filed under The Negative Canon

16 responses to “The Negative Canon: As You Like It

  1. Here are a few excerpts from the page on ‘like’ at the excellent ‘Common Errors in English Usage’ at Washington State University, compiled by (ex?) Professor Bryans:

    ‘Some stodgy conservatives still object to the use of “like” to mean “as,” “as though” or “as if.” ‘

    ‘In informal contexts, “like” often sounds more natural than “as if,” especially with verbs involving perception, like “look,” “feel,” “sound,” “seem,” or “taste”: “It looks like it’s getting ready to rain” or “It feels like spring.” ‘

    ‘So nervous do some people get about “like” that they try to avoid it even in its core meaning of “such as”: “ice cream flavors like vanilla and strawberry always sell well” (they prefer “such as vanilla . . .”). ‘


    • He seems sound on this, but he isn’t not on everything.


      • But he does make it very clear in his introduction that ‘The aim of this site is to help you avoid low grades, lost employment opportunities, lost business, and titters of amusement at the way you write or speak.’ rather than laying down the rules. I have to say, he is one of my favourite commentators on usage.


        • Mine, as you may have noticed, are ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ and ‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’.


          • Well, I will say that MWDEU is just about the best twenty-eight dollars worth I’ve ever spent on a book. And for EFL teachers of my generation, Swan is more or less the bible. What I like most about ‘Common Errors’ his writing style, and it has the great advantage of being free, of course. I think I’ve found myself in disagreement with him on a couple of occasions, but it would be interesting to know where you think he isn’t sound (remembering that he’s writing for American college students).


            • His comments read like expressions of his personal view, rather than anything based on evidence. If it is, he doesn’t quote his sources. Still, to be fair, I haven’t really had the need to consult him.

              MWDEU is more authoritative, as is the Cambridge Guide,which I recommend largely because it is corpus based.


              • That’s certainly true, but it’s not that sort of book and doesn’t make any claims to be authoritative in that way. His ‘authority’ is that he was a professor of English giving advice for students, just as Swan’s is that he is an experienced EFL teacher. MWDEU is fascinating for somebody interested in the language, but the other two are much useful for me as an EFL teacher.


  2. Just a point on foreign learners – the most important thing, surely, is to teach them natural English, while pointing out differences in register. The vast majority of my students (learning in-company) are most interested in conversational English. Even in business, daily communication and even correspondence mainly takes place in an informal context (and mainly with other non-native speakers).

    I think Michael Swan, in Practical English Usage, gets it about right – ‘In informal English like is often used as a conjunction instead of as … It is not generally considered correct in a formal style ‘.

    And Raymond Murphy, in English Grammar in Use, probably the grammar practice book most widely used by EFL students, certainly has no problem with like meaning such as – ‘Some sports, like motor-racing, can be dangerous’.

    Nor apparently with the meaning of as if/though – ‘After It looks/sounds/smells, many people use like instead of as if / though – “It looks like Sandra isn’t coming to the party” ‘.


    • I suppose that on the whole EFL teaching does well to adopt a conservative approach where there’s any doubt about usage.


      • That depends how much doubt there is. For two out of your three, I would say hardly any at all, and I certainly wouldn’t correct a student for using like for examples or after verbs of the senses. The grammar taught in EFL is firmly based on a descriptivist approach and I would say is far less conservative than that taught to native speakers, if native-speaker grammar websites are anything to go by.

        In any case, students don’t learn English in a vacuum, they come across English in music, on holiday, in business and on Erasmus programmes etc. The more contact with English they have, the less formal and the more natural their language gets. My job, as I see it, is to give them the options, teach them about register, and leave the decisions to them.

        Which is largely what learner’s dictionaries, which are mainly corpus-based, do. See, for example, the usage notes at The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, for example, and their entry for like as a conjunction. I wouldn’t call this a particularly conservative approach, personally.


        • I think I must have had in mind Peter Harvey’s comment on his blog:

          My job is to teach and advise people who need to use English for their business and professional purposes. I also translate texts, sometimes for publication, for people who are demanding in their requirements. I simply cannot afford to have a student come back to me with a complaint that something that I have taught or tolerated has been criticised in no uncertain manner as a grammatical solecism by a native speaker; nor can I afford to have an argument with a translation client on the same matter. As a result, I play it safe just as the Economist does.


          • Apparently, we have slightly different ways of looking at things, and ‘tolerate’ is not really a word I think of when it comes to controversial areas of language; I prefer ‘inform’. This would certainly be the case with some of what you’ve written about in the Negative Canon. Other things, like ‘singular they’ and ‘like’ for examples (as here) are absolutely standard in EFL teaching .

            On the other hand, yes, I would certainly ‘correct’ double negatives, but when doing so, especially with more advanced students, I often discuss with them how they are used in non-standard English. With so many Poles going to London, that’s something that might be useful for them to know.


  3. I simply do not understand people who insist some words can be multiple parts of speech but others cannot. Or rather, I think I do: it’s a shibboleth, a way of marking out people who don’t belong. I suppose many of these usage guides think they’re doing people a favor, by teaching them how to pass.


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