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In a recent answer to another question, a fellow poster just used the following turn of phrase:

The nearest you’re like to get is [word][.]

I only ever saw and used "you’re likely to..." myself, but something told me it wasn't a typo. So I started looking around and sure enough it wasn't. After some discussion in chat, here's what we have determined so far:

  • 50–60 million Google hits for "you are like to"; 3 million for "you are like to get". (120 million for "you are likely to", 11 million for "you are likely to get".)
  • 2 hits on BNC, 0 on COCA. The poster is from the UK. Seems to be a British thing. More stats follow:

                           COCA   BNC
    you are likely to [v*]  150   167
    you are like to [v*]      0     2
    we are likely to [v*]   126    67
    we are like to [v*]       0     0
    I am likely to [v*]      18    12
    I am like to [v*]         0     1

    Until we come to this outlier:

    he is likely to [v*]    143    92
    he is like to [v*]        2     1

    The two COCA cites looking legit:

    • There's a danger that some of the weapons of mass destruction he is like to have had may have leaked out of the country.

      — SPOKEN, 2003, CNN.

    • A Californian! This is herring man, a favorite to vodka. He is like to have hammer and sickle tattooed on his chest.

      — FICTION, 2001, Harper's Magazine.

  • Some hits on Google Books. For example, from Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy, Marily Butler (ed.), 1984:

    Can I be blamed to point out to him in what manner he is like to be affected, if the sect of the cannibal philosophers of France should proselytize any considerable part of this people, and, by their joint proselytizing arms, should conquer that Government, to which his Grace does not seem to me to give all the support his own security demands?

    Again, Cambridge University Press, so could be a British thing, if not for the spelling of proselytize that suggests otherwise.

  • The quick straw poll in chat produced reactions ranging from "Really? Never heard of." through "It's an odd one. I suppose it's fine colloquially." to "I have heard this, and I think it is a modern mal-back-formation of likely when the sentence structure resembles a copula."

So, my questions are:

  • Is this or is this not a strictly British thing? Does it sound grammatical to Americans? And what about Indian/Australian English?
  • How recent is this use of like? Who knows — does it perhaps even predate the corresponding use of likely?
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  • 2
    Your quote about "the cannibal philosophers of France" from Burke, Paine, Godwin, ... was written in 1796 by Edmund Burke (Irish!). And my citation has the other spelling "proselytise". So this construction has been around for a while. Jan 21, 2013 at 14:27
  • 3
    Oh dear, what have I done? That was written in error, because it's not what I would say, and I have now changed it! Nevertheless, I acknowledge that it's a form others might use. Jan 21, 2013 at 15:43
  • 2
    Google Ngrams seems to show that it's an old-fashioned construction, which has been replaced by is likely to in both the U.S. and the U.K. However, it survived for much longer in the U.K., which probably accounts for it being mostly a British construction today. Actually looking at the Google hits gives many examples in the 18th and 19th centuries (although there are a few false positives mixed in). Jan 21, 2013 at 16:04
  • "something told me it wasn't a typo" has also necessarily to apply to the occurrences in the corpora.
    – Kris
    Jan 23, 2013 at 5:36
  • And in the instant case, it indeed was one.
    – Kris
    Jan 23, 2013 at 5:40

4 Answers 4

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This is also an American colloquial usage, which I'm sure I've seen in 19th century writing but can't locate a citation just yet.

I was like to hit him in the mouth for saying that.

We were like to die from the heat.

The latter I definitely heard my grandmother say when I was a child.

Addendum

Ah, found one. Mark Twain, of course (from The £1,000,000 Bank Note ):

So I had to give it up and go away. What a riddle it all was! I was like to lose my mind.

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  • These instances make complete sense in the AmE idiom to me, not the one in question, 'The nearest you’re like to get is'.
    – Kris
    Jan 23, 2013 at 5:38
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As the unwitting starter of this hare, I feel honour bound to offer an answer. In the sense of ‘likely, probably’, the OED describes like as ‘rare except in phrases like enough, very like, (as) like as not (colloquial or dialect).’ The OED’s earliest citation comes from 1570, and the most recent from 1898. Other than as stated, it is pretty much non-existent in contemporary British Standard English.

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  • "like as not" is both familiar and acceptable (to 53-year-old me, at least - maybe not to some younger folks). Jan 21, 2013 at 19:10
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    @Kristina Lopez. And to rather more than 53-year old me. Jan 21, 2013 at 19:30
  • Shakespeare used both forms. I suspect he chose the one that fit the meter better (which was usually "like to"). Jan 22, 2013 at 2:40
  • @ Peter Shor. A very quick search here < shakespeareswords.com> suggests that, compared with his use of likely to, Shakespeare had an overwhelming preference for like to , although some allowance has to be made for the occasions when like to is used to mean ‘similar to’. A more thorough search would be needed to be sure. Jan 22, 2013 at 7:45
  • "Like as not" is not rare in Appalachian and Southern US English. Apr 22, 2014 at 2:01
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"Does it sound grammatical to Americans?"

As a single anecdotal representative of an American set of ears, it does not sound grammatical to me (regardless of whether it actually is). Hearing it invokes a mild version of the same aversion I feel when I hear someone say "I seen it" instead of "I saw it".

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  • And 'He is like to have ,,,' sounds decidedly archaic to my UK ears. The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary [1871] contains << Proverbs 31:1 Commentaries: The words of King Lemuel ... 1. When she first discerned his inclinations to those sins of which she here warns him, to which she saw he was like to have many and strong provocations. >> [Bible Hub › commentaries › proverbs]. But ELU expects answers supported by evidence, Darryl (note the downvotes on the subjective answer above). The question is not phrased ideally. Nov 15, 2023 at 17:26
  • It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find objective evidence of whether something sounds grammatical to a group of people. In my opinion, a handful of anecdotal responses actually adds value for a question like this. I have no problem accepting downvotes if that viewpoint conflicts with the culture of the board.
    – Darryl
    Nov 15, 2023 at 17:37
  • You're assuming that 'a handful of anecdotal responses' is going to be reasonably representative and submitted by non-partisans. This is far from being a safe assumption, which is why questions soliciting opinion and answers offering it are generally seen as undesirable on all Stack Exchange sites. They're explicitly not chatrooms. // 'The two COCA cites looking legit ...' in the question show some objective research, which is more in line with site recommendations/regulations. Nov 15, 2023 at 17:53
  • It's more that I'm assuming anecdotal responses will be taken with a grain of salt, yet they are still likely to be more useful than silence in many contexts.
    – Darryl
    Nov 15, 2023 at 19:12
  • From the Help Center: 'All subjective questions are expected to be constructive. What does that mean? Constructive subjective questions: ... insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references' Nov 15, 2023 at 22:28
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I bring nothing to this answer other than my American ear and eye...

If I heard the following phrase, the weapons of mass destruction he is like to have had...", I would know what was meant and would not stop to ponder the "odd" use of "like"

however...

If I read the same phrase, it would not go by unnoticed - my eye would dart back to "like" and wonder for a split second if that should have been "likely".

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