'It sounds as if Jack has found the perfect job'!

'It sounds like a violin, but I think its a viola'.

Are these the correct forms?

It was drummed into me at school over half a century ago that to say 'It sounds like he's in trouble' is very bad English. You only say 'sounds like' if it is something you can hear.

  • 1
    I don't recall ever having such a distinction drilled in to me, and I'm not sure I'd make that much of a distinction. One could argue that the sentence "It sounds like Jack found the perfect job." is correct even with the distinction as the reference is to what you were (presumably) just told. "It (what you said) sounds like..." And for "It sounds like he's in trouble" could be argued the same (if you heard yelling, you're referring to said yelling for the assumption, etc).
    – Doc
    Jan 14 '14 at 20:46
  • X sounds like + {description or imitation of sound X}. X` sounds as if + {description of cause of sound X}. They can be the same, if the sound is iconic for its cause (like an explosion). Jan 14 '14 at 20:48
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    @PeterShor Correctly one would say 'It looks as if it is going to rain'. But the idiom, 'It looks like rain', probably dating from the song, 'It looks like rain, Down cherry-blossom lane', is so strong that that is one usage that I feel sure even my old English master would have accepted. He was a bit of a stickler was old Sambo. On one occasion a boy told him there was a bag 'laying on the floor'. Oh yes, how many eggs are there?, came the riposte.
    – WS2
    Jan 14 '14 at 20:59
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    @WS2: I think you're maybe being a bit harsh on the "non-Anglophones" there. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty casual about whether to use it looks/sounds/seems like [whatever it is similar to, or evocative of]. By which I mean I'd be quite prepared to say something like "It looks like you're not interested" on the telephone, to someone who doesn't seem enthusiastic. Native speakers can be extremely flexible when it comes to figurative usages, and it would certainly be a mistake to equate logic, grammar, and idiomatic acceptability. Jan 14 '14 at 22:36
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    @WS2: Yes, it seems [like!] the prescriptive position you were taught has increasingly fallen out of favour over the years. I don't recall ever being taught that "rule" at school myself (I'd have probably forgotten it by now if I ever was), but I do have vague recollections of it being brought up in conversations and/or writings on grammar (which I have occasionally read in later life). To me though, it's just an even more obscure variant on less/fewer than - pointless "rules" that few know about, and even less care about or observe. Jan 14 '14 at 23:37

Like is a preposition and as is a conjunction.

I have heard what you have as well, but not in those words. The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage states that “probably no single question of usage has created greater controversy in recent years” than the conjunctive use of like. (Per Grammar Girl)

A preposition is a word that ‘positions’ or situates words in relation to one another. (Examples are in, around, beside, under, through, etc.)

A conjunction is, simply, a connecting word. Common conjunctions are and, but, and or.

Use like when no verb follows.

Sarah throws like a quarterback. (quarterback is the object of the preposition) Andrew acts just like my brother. (brother is the object of the preposition)

If the clause that comes next includes a verb, then you should use as.

Sarah throws as if she were a quarterback. Andrew acts just as I would expect my brother to behave.

Obviously, if it's a similarity one wishes to express, it's appropriate to use like (It sounds like waves coming to shore.)

Having said all that, the above is a guide to grammar. How you choose to say something (like/as if/as though) is your choice. I don't like how overused like is, so I tend not to use it as much as some.

  • Very comprehensive answer. Sambo (my English master), rest his soul, would have been impressed. There was no racist reason nor intent in his nickname. His real name was Stephen Michael Bates, and the only reason we called him Sambo was because his initials were SMB.
    – WS2
    Jan 14 '14 at 21:13
  • That's an amusing anecdote. I was living in Tennessee when there was a great national furor over "Little Black Sambo". Times were simpler then, I guess. :) Jan 14 '14 at 21:18
  • The books were around in the 1980s when our children were at the age for them. We were assured by liberal friends that it was only at a superficial level that they appeared to embody every racial stereotype - Black Jumbo & Mumbo etc. Anyway our family emerged as resolute racial egalitarians. But I can just imagine the controversy in Tennessee! From what I have read the originals are believed to have played a part in establishing the name Sambo as a racial slur.
    – WS2
    Jan 14 '14 at 22:13

As if precedes a clause.

He acted as if he didn't know who I am.

Although like and as if are not generally interchangeable, it is acceptable for like to substitute for as if in this situation. In the same way, it links "he acted" with its complementing clause:

He acted like he didn't know who I am.

This usage is common, and compatible with prestige dialects of English. Today, nobody in his right mind will regard you as "uneducated" if you use this.

It's not clear if your grammar teacher's prescriptive rule was even valid fifty years ago.

In fact, like is more euphonic than as if when the complementary clauses are elided.

He drives like crazy. [Typical usage.]

He drives as if crazy. [Not used as much.]

(It almost needs not mentioning that as if and like are not otherwise interchangeable because of obvious counterexamples such as when like is a verb, or when it applies to a noun phrase: "I like Baroque composers, { like | *as if } Bach and Vivaldi.")

  • 'He acted like he didn't know who I am'. For a start it should be 'I was'. But the 'like' sounds a bit sloppy to me. What exactly do you mean by 'prestige dialects of English'? I was brought up as an East Anglian dumpling but I know better than to say 'He drives like crazy'.
    – WS2
    Jan 15 '14 at 8:13
  • @WS2 No, it does not have to be "I was" if I still am that person now whom he pretended not to recognize in the past.
    – Kaz
    Jan 15 '14 at 13:51
  • Well, I would maintain that it has to be 'was'. It would be interesting to know what others think.
    – WS2
    Jan 15 '14 at 16:22
  • @WS2 Pop quiz for you: "That fellow who was rude to me yesterday didn't realize that I {was? | am?} his senior manager at ABC Corp." :)
    – Kaz
    Jan 15 '14 at 22:35

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