So like, I had this teacher? And he's like, "You're late?" And I'm like, "There's like other people late too?"

I've always cringed at the word "like" strewn about in a spoken sentence. Well now I've seen it in print, right in the middle of an otherwise articulate National Geographic article. Not once, but twice. As far as I could tell it was not being used tongue in cheek. In the Feb '10 issue, in the article about the Congo Chimps. See last two paragraphs here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/02/congo-chimps/foer-text/2

"Sure enough, they built their nests directly over our tents," says Morgan. "I was like, This is great! But our trackers were like, No way, man, this is very bad news."

"People were like, Curiosity: Hmmm, how do you define that?" says Sanz, 34, now a professor at Washington University in St. Louis."

When I read that I had to shake my head and go back to re-read those sentences. I'm just curious what people think of this, and if you have seen any other examples in like a literate context?

  • 4
    So the usages are quoted .. and from a 34-year-old professor no less!??! What is this world coming to?
    – warren
    Commented Aug 20, 2010 at 20:19
  • 17
    To be fair, these are direct quotes of Morgan and Sanz's speech. It's not as though these were excerpts from an article they wrote or something. I use "like" sometimes when speaking. I don't use it when writing. Most people I've met seem to be like that, too.
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Aug 20, 2010 at 20:22
  • It doesn't bother me... (granted, I'm young and have grown up with it in popular use). Besides, in the usage above, it is a quote of casual dialog. It's not uncommon to see bad English quoted in instances of common dialog. It's a less formal alternative to "he said / she said."
    – Adam
    Commented Feb 6, 2011 at 18:58
  • 1
    It seems to have become popular with some British teenagers as well. For a great parody along the lines of 'I was, like. And he was, like', search for 'Catherine Tait Valley Girls' on YouTube. Commented Jan 4, 2012 at 21:59
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    Just for the record, Valspeak inherited 'like' from the previous generation: it was already, like, the conventional marker for hip/beat dialogue in the early 60s. Like look up Bob Denver's character Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. I have no idea how much farther back it goes. Commented Aug 7, 2012 at 13:45

5 Answers 5


I can't think of any other examples at the moment, but I can offer a few interesting comments.

The word like in the sense you are using it is a discourse particle to indicate a possible mismatch between words and meaning. This was first noted by Schourup (1985).

Compare the difference:

  1. John said, "what are you, crazy?"

  2. John was like, "what are you, crazy?"

Sentence (1) implies an exact quote from John, while sentence (2) is paraphrasing or giving the gist of his reaction — he didn't have to say those exact words at all. It can even be used to recount facial expressions or emotions, e.g. "and I was like (O_O)", where if you are speaking to someone you can mimic the facial expression of your story.

Note that, in the reference I linked to above, there are other uses for like besides this particular function.

I wish I could find a reference for this (and if anyone can find one, please add it to the comments), but it is well-known among linguists that adolescent girls are very often at the forefront of language change (and men are generally more conservative than women overall). So it is no surprise that something considered to be exclusively done by adolescent girls in the early 80s could be fairly widespread in 2010 and increasing.

As I mentioned in the beginning, like also provides a useful discourse marker that other words do not replicate, which means that it has linguistic value — it provides something unique. This leads me to believe that, once the valley-girl stigma is a thing of the past (who knows how long that will be), like will only proliferate more (unless something else comes along in the meantime!). Just think how far it has come even with the stigma in existence. People who think it is silly sometimes find themselves using it in speech in spite of themselves.

I find this word (and its viral power) fascinating.

  • I found a reference to adolescent girls and language change (although not as high-quality as I would have liked): ksat.com/family/4742542/detail.html
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Aug 20, 2010 at 20:39
  • 2
    I like your analysis. And even though I cringe at naive/hyper use, I guess I do find myself using it at times. I wouldn't use it in a job interview, but I have used it in casual situations.
    – Chris Noe
    Commented Aug 20, 2010 at 23:34
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    And this meaning is, like, totally different than using it as, like, an interjection or something. Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 23:41
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    @Shreevatsa: Interestingly, this is not a uniquely English phenomenon, though I don't know for sure if it extends to all (or most) of the world's languages. I can say that broad language change is usually driven by the youth, though, in part because the brain simply becomes much less malleable with age. Girls are generally supposed to be more innovative linguistically at that age.
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Feb 19, 2011 at 13:44
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers: Men are generally more silent, that's true, but its because talking takes effort, and they don't waste it unless there's a pretty lady near. Women teach babies to talk, so they need to talk more. Teenage girls create insular language as a social push-away "don't talk to me dude" mechanism, to advertise their sexual desirability. The dudes catch on, and then they change the hurdles. Like almost everything, its sex, not danger, that drives things. Academics develop new jargon for similar reasons, to keep outsiders from understanding their work, and as a quick test for competence.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Mar 6, 2012 at 6:04

First of all, I want to acknowledge that Kosmonaut’s answer is a good summary of what is called “quotative like”—use of the word like to introduce a quotation. As he explains, it fills a unique role in English not easily replaced by other words.

However, what I wanted to note is there is a difference between quotative like and “filler like”. Filler like is the one that people frequently object to, where the word like is added without adding syntactically to the sentence. In the original question’s examples, only the first like (“So like, I had this teacher”) is filler like. In all the other examples, like plays an actual syntactic role. If you take it out, the sentences don’t make sense. The like added at the end of the question (“in like a literate context”) is an example of filler like, not quotative like.

I can understand objecting to filler like—it is a hesitation word like um or uh that adds nothing to the discourse, although presumably spoken unconsciously. But objecting to quotative like is more complex because although it is a new construction in English, it serves a specific semantic role for which no other construction can quite substitute.

  • Good point; definitely worth mentioning this.
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Sep 20, 2010 at 22:20
  • Interjection is the word you're looking for for this use, I believe. Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 23:43
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filler_(linguistics%29
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 23:52
  • 3
    There was a post on Language Log not so long ago, pointing out that filler ‘like’ performed the same function as ‘if you will’. That does not attract the same degree of opprobrium, perhaps because it is used by white, middle-class males. Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 8:17
  • 3
    Is there recognition of a quotative "all" now, as in "He was all, 'Get outta my grill, man,' and I was like, 'Bring it, bitch'"?
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 14:04

For what it's worth:

"was like" meets an important need: a way to indicate that you are paraphrasing. I'm a 35-year-old English teacher from the UK, and I sometimes spot myself using it. Before "was like" found its way into my active vocabulary, I had to resort to such clumsy expressions as "He said something like ...." or "His attitude was all ...."

So, yes, I think "was like" is here to stay. Sooner or later, a well-spoken member of the British Establishment will blurt it out in a formal interview. Then, in their next convocation, the GCSE English teachers of the land will hammer out a proposal for "was like"'s correct usage, to be ratified in Her Majety's Most Gracious Speech at the State Opening of Parliament the following May.

In the US, you'll know "was like" is acceptable when you see it in a Supreme Court judgment.

18 months later, my thinking on this matter has changed a little.

Compare these sentences:

John said, "Yeah, what about it?"

John was like, "Yeah, what about it?"

John asked why I thought this was important.

John was prickly and defiant.

The first is simple, direct, and correct, but isn't suitable if the speaker is loosely paraphrasing John.

The second is simple, direct, correct, and is suitable for loose paraphrasing.

The third doesn't work, because it describes the content of John's statement, but the speaker wants to convey John's attitude.

The fourth works, but it lacks the dramatic impact of portraying John saying, "Yeah, what about it?"

  • 1
    I agree that the word very unequivocally indicates a paraphrase. But that is the problem with it: used by everybody all the time it looks like everybody is paraphrasing everything all the time. It looks like people want to see reality as a quotation, not real by itself, but something that can be manipulated and maintained withing the frames of an artificial environment, a framework limited and controlled by their minds. The quotation signs made with the fingers in the air play a similar role and serve a similar purpose of creating a theater-like atmosphere, aesthetisized and anesthetized.
    – cipricus
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 14:03
  • @cipricus Thanks. You made me notice that I missed the "dramatic portrayal" element from my answer of 18 months ago. I've added to it now.
    – Pitarou
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 0:24

These are quotations, and the article clearly wants to convey the youth and enthusiasm of the speakers, by demonstrating to you how they communicated what happened in conversation.

By analogy, what if this had been a TV documentary:

Option 1:

(semi-meaningless imagery; e.g. slow motion of crowded street)

Voiceover: Sanz observed that people did not know how to define curiosity.

Option 2:

(Interior, Sanz' office)

Sanz: People were like, Curiosity: Hmmm, how do you define that?

The first option seems to convey the same meaning, but the second tells you more about the kind of man Sanz is, and gives you insight into the way the discoveries were made.

This is how people talk. By definition, it has already "entered the language".


The usage of "like" that you're talking about (He was like, "etc.") seems to be a different phenomenon than the word "like" inserted at seemingly arbitrary intervals.

Even then, there's an art to where "like" is inserted. You can't just insert it, like, anywhere. The following usage would, like, totally seem awkward: "I took the, like, dog out for a walk". There's a whole, like, rhyme and reason to it that I, like, still don't understand.

In my experience, in yet another somewhat unrelated usage, "like" can also be used as a mild intensifier, like this:

It was, like, 30 feet tall!

  • But that's like really awkward? Because you can't be like, I took the dog out for a walk, and then put a like in there. It just like doesn't like work like that you know?
    – aedia λ
    Commented Apr 5, 2013 at 4:40
  • One of the "likes" in there is misplaced. Try figuring out which one. :P
    – Joe Z.
    Commented Apr 5, 2013 at 15:06

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