Tuesday, February 15, 2011

March 1976: Much Ado about "Like" as a Conjunction

Archive 20: Articles and ideas published in the past that are of interest today in the 21st century.

Question: Is “like” as a conjunction historically ungrammatical?

Answer—Quote: “An article in a local paper questioning the correctness of the infamous Winston ad (‘Winston tastes good like a cigarette should’) brought that old chestnut once again to the fore. But it had been a ‘pet hate phrase [for the writer] for some time.’ It ‘bugs’ him, he said, ‘not just because the slogan is ungrammatical’ but ‘because it reflects a cynical and calculated abuse of the language.’

“Historically, ‘like’ has been used as a conjunction…by Keats, Shakespeare, Dryden, Burns, Coleridge, Shelley, Darwin, Bronte, Kipling, Shaw, Wells, Masefield and Maugham, as well as the Encyclopedia Britannica (Thank you, Bergan Evans); so it is not ungrammatical. Those who damn the use of ‘like’ as a conjunction began with the 19th century literary gentlemen whose education had been chiefly Greek and Latin, who were bent on forcing English into the Procrustean Bed of classical languages. There is no reason why we should force English to conform to the rules of Latin; there is nothing inherent in English that requires that one use ‘as’ rather than ‘like’ in the Winston ad.

“Objections come from purists from those who are plagued by that vague correctness demon that hovers over their shoulders whenever they speak or write. A primary use of language is to affect people. Winston’s use of ‘like’ (let us assume they were unaware of the historical validity of its use) was to arouse. Obviously, they have succeeded. If the ad men used ‘like’ as a ‘calculated abuse of the language,’ they were playing the language game well. It was a stroke of genius to so well read the American psyche; of course we would react to such a significant ‘abuse’ of the language, and thus provide so much free publicity and attention to their product. That is, after all, the purpose of advertising.” P. 12.

Comment: So many of the conventions of language (my—and the writer’s—beginning  sentences with a coordinate conjunction, for example) are not ungrammatical if you accept the author’s excuse that some of the best writers have used the supposed “mistake.” Still, I am a victim of habit. “Like” as a conjunction grates on my ear. I am sensitive to its use. I cannot help it. RayS.

Title: “The Language Game.” William Reynolds. English Journal (March 1976), 11-13.

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