I Tried to Get My Kids to Stop Saying the Word 'Like' Until Experts Said I Didn't Have To
Ever since my two daughters started speaking in full sentences, I've been on their cases to resist using what I consider a lazy language crutch. Besides the fact that I don't want them growing up sounding like reality show contestants, all of whom seem to alternate every other word with like, my goal is to help them learn how to communicate effectively—not just with friends and family but in school and, eventually, the real world.
But I still struggled with the appropriate response when my 4-year-old said, "Look, I have like 20 Shopkins now!"
"No," I corrected, "You don't have like 20 Shopkins; you have 20 Shopkins." Part of me wondered if I was needlessly making them feel self-conscious. Another part doubted that my point was even sinking in. Differentiating between like as a verb and like as a linguistic tic is tough stuff for someone who still thinks it's okay to wipe her nose on my jeans. Cleaning up the sentence trash? Even trickier.
So you can imagine my excitement when my 7-year-old recently self-corrected herself. She started off by saying, "I was playing with Ian and I was like, 'I wonder which Pokémon cards he has?'" but then stopped and said, "I mean, I was playing with Ian and I thought to myself, 'I wonder what Pokémon cards he has?'"
Incredible progress, right?
Like, not so fast, according to every language expert I contacted while researching this story, including a renowned sociolinguist who literally wrote the book on like (a 235-page academic compendium called Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context: Eight Hundred Years of LIKE.)
One professor explained that language isn't good or bad—it's a living, breathing, evolving organism that reflects changing times—and warned me that attempting to dampen down our girls' likes is like fighting a losing battle. Another told me she'd be surprised if I found any linguist willing to criticize the use of like among young people.
Trust me, I tried. Like, really hard.
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The Evolution of the Word Like
The word serves at least seven widely accepted functions, including as a verb ("I like weekend naps"), suffix ("Her eyes have a blueberry-like hue to them"), and preposition ("I swore like a sailor when I stepped on that Lego"), explains Alexandra D'Arcy, Ph.D., director of the Sociolinguistics Research Lab at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and author of the aforementioned LIKE tome.
"These uses have been around since the 1800s and are more or less unremarkable," she says. The language judging begins, Dr. D'Arcy explains, when people believe like is being tossed willy-nilly into a sentence—"I'm running like five minutes late" or "They love traveling as a family. Like they've been to four continents already." But these maligned likes are far from random, Dr. D'Arcy insists. In the running-late example, like functions as a substitute for about or approximately; with the traveling-family, it connects two thoughts (also called a discourse marker), similar to indeed or therefore.
Over the years, some of us have grown more accustomed to certain discourse markers than others. In fact, I personally have no problem with therefore or on the other hand, or even you know, but like is my kryptonite. Maybe I'm especially sensitive to it because I'm a writer. Or perhaps I'm just a crotchety, change-resistant Gen X-er who not only hates like, but also believes kids should still learn cursive in school and smart phones banned before age 13. Regardless, the notion of someone using like in lieu of the in fact I used three sentences ago makes me want to cry a little on the inside.
It's time to catch up with the times, I was told by Kathryn Remlinger, Ph.D., a linguistics professor at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. "As society changes, language does too," she says. Just as more people are working from home in their PJs and fewer kids address their friends' parents by Mrs. or Mr., younger generations may use like in different ways. Which means your pediatrician telling you, "His fever is high, but like I'm not too worried," is just a linguistic sign of the times.
And let's be clear: Your child not dropping like into her sentences doesn't mean she isn't grasping the modern English language. You just need to cool off on correcting her if she does—especially during dinner, a time that's better reserved for hearing about what she learned in science class that day rather than getting a grammar lesson from you.
Girls and the Language Police
Even worse, my inner feminist was horrified to hear that correcting my girls' likes may actually be considered language-shaming, something females are forever on the receiving end of. (See: Vocal fry; exclamation point abuse; and uptalk, or delivering statements as if they're questions.)
This sort of unfair scorn leaves Dr. D'Arcy perplexed. "Women are the real innovators of language," she says. When researchers at the University of Helsinki pored over 6,000 letters penned between 1417 and 1681, they found that 11 of the 14 language changes that took place—doth to do, maketh to make—were led by female writers.
It seems, then, that like deserves a pretty giant Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card. But what if you're still concerned that your kid is peppering her speech with too many? Dr. D'Arcy says that just as kids organically outgrow potty language with age, they will also gradually begin to tone down their likes in more formal settings, usually starting around age 8. By then, they know they shouldn't talk to their instructor at swimming lessons the same way they talk to you at supper about what happened at recess. She offers her own college students as examples: They may be liberal with the likes in casual conversation, but they pull back on it when giving presentations in class.
This phenomenon is called switching registers, says Lauren Alter, a pediatric speech pathologist and an assistant professor and clinical educator in speech-language pathology at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York. Your kids learn it from watching you—the way you order coffee from the barista ("May I please have a latte?") is much different from the way you request it from your partner at home ("Babe, can you grab me a cup?").
Finding Love with Like
Ultimately, researching this story helped me become less militant about my kids using the word like. Still, Alter confirms that, as parents, we have a right to be annoyed by our kids using like, even if, linguistically speaking, it's not nearly as bad as I've made it out to be. Just as our kids will one day stop singing "Baby Shark" on repeat or decide that their bright orange shirt is no longer their favorite, we have to remember that kids will grow out of like too, and focusing on it at the dinner table—that sweet time of day when you can finally have your kids' full attention—is counterproductive.
Like, I couldn't agree more.