I like to use "like" as a quotative for non-literal speech (and non-literal speech in general), speech that no one has said but might have said if given the opportunity.

This is a useful expressive tool but I'm nervous that other people might think I'm attributing speech to people when they didn't actually say it.

An example:

I went so see him yesterday and he was like, "why didn't you just do it yourself, loser?"

Is this "speech" always metaphorical?

(I'm quite aware that use of "like" as a quotative is controversial, so comments to this effect in any answers might be superfluous or unnecessary.)

  • 4
    I don't think you mean 'metaphorical', but instead 'non-literal' or 'non-verbatim'
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 18:17
  • 1
    Hmm... I'm not sure now. The "speech" might not have been said but implied by the persons actions / behaviour. There might not have even been speech. "non-literal" implies there was actually some speech. Metaphorical isn't the best word though. Opinions?
    – Att Righ
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 18:46
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    Is there actually still controversy about quotative like other than "old fogey's" saying it's awful english?
    – DRF
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 19:16
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    I don't think that the use of 'like' as a quotative has settled down yet into a recognisable pattern.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 21:47
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    @JohnLawler - The more profanity and colloquialisms used, the less I'm apt to think it's verbatim. E.g., I asked the boss... he was like 'aw hell no, FTS'. - I doubt most peoples' bosses swear as much as I do. Adding all helps. He was all like "Naw. That S ain't popping, dawg."
    – Mazura
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 0:10

3 Answers 3


I don't think the quotative 'like' is necessarily non-literal but it might be a little strange if the quotes part is actually literal, because then I'd feel you'd be more likely to say:

"I went so see him yesterday and he said "why didn't you just do it yourself, loser?"

That would be an attempt at a true quote. 'like' is used more to report a general feeling or paraphrase. The 'quoted' part may well be verbatim, but that is not the point, despite it being labeled 'quotative'.

Given this state of things, it might be more accurate to call this a reportative 'like', but you should still call it quotative 'like' because that's how everyone else calls it.

  • The concept of the reportative is interesting, I hadn't come across it before. German kind of has this at a grammatical level. You use the present konjunctive (subjunctive) for indirect speech
    – Att Righ
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 18:49
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    I don’t think your first paragraph holds up here. I’ve heard many a teenage girl use quotative like to report direct speech—for some, to such an extent that it seems to have almost completely ousted the verb say in their vocabulary. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 19:59
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I used the word 'necessarily' intentionally. 'like' is like 'said' but I hear it more often as attempting to paraphrase what someone said rather than be verbatim. Hm... maybe 'said' is already like that anyway?
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 20:28
  • @Mitch It wasn’t so much the “necessarily” bit, but the “otherwise you’d say” bit that I don’t think holds up. “Otherwise you’d be more likely to hear” would be more accurate, I think. (Actually, I don’t think ‘otherwise’ fits at all here—‘then’ seems more logical. But that’s a different matter.) Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 20:50
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Oh OK I get it. I see what you say but... I just feel like no one is -really- quoting anyone, but reporting something slightly reworded.
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 23:03

In your example you are actually implying that he did say that. When you use "like" like this it's entirely possible for people to think the person actually said it, and it's entirely possible for them to think the person didn't. It's a minefield.

You could use: "He looked like he was gonna say/he was about to say ..."

Or you could just describe it otherwise like "I went to see him yesterday and he looked pissed".
But if that's too long for you, you could run the original description with the quotative "like" in your mind and see what you're implying.

If it could be taken in both ways and it doesn't do any harm if people got it wrong you can use it, it'd just count as exaggeration. And a good story's always better than the truth.

  • Interesting. I get the impression that "like" differs between different dialects of English.
    – Att Righ
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 17:59
  • Well i'm not a native speaker, so can't answer that for you.
    – Virgilius
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 18:00
  • I don't know. I get the impression non-native speakers pay attention while native speakers just ignore stuff and carry on regardless!
    – Att Righ
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 18:02
  • This piece says that "In the early 1980s, it was primarily used to report inner states, not direct speech," but now it is an " opening into either direct quotation or inner condition".
    – Att Righ
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 18:09
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    there's an episode of Seinfeld that talks about this; "did you really say that?", "no".
    – dandavis
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 20:11

The answers here are accurate in the fact that what is quoted after like can be verbatim, but doesn't have to be.

Honestly when I read that sentence, I kind of read it in a “Jersey Girl”, Kardashian-esque tone. That just means that whoever is speaking is either dramatizing the conversation for story purposes or repeating what was perceived to be said.

  • "dramatizing" In this example probably: it was chosen for simplicity. It becomes more useful when what you are trying to imply is more subtle / difficult to say directly. The time I use quotative forms most is chatting with people about quite technical things. For example, "I thought this framing said something, but he was all like, 'No entity without identity'" At its best, I think "like" can concisely pack a lot of meaning into a sentence (particularly when used in spoken form). At its worse, you are correct, it can be an exercise in projection!
    – Att Righ
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 21:09
  • I can see where you are coming from, but even with the sentence that was provided "...but he was all like, 'No entity without identity'", I read that as bit of a dramatized version of what was actually said in order to emphasize the importance the quotes. From my experience, the word "like" used in this way is a bit informal, and often used this way in storytelling, whether or not the story is true.
    – qwertybin
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 21:24
  • I agree entirely. I wonder if the informality is a function of the conciseness (based on shared knowledge) rather than the grammatical form itself. I only really use this in technical chat forums :/. Although I might put something like "It's as though we are saying, 'Who cares about truth when there are arguments to win?'" when in something longer form.
    – Att Righ
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 21:53
  • 2
    like 2: informal. used to convey a person's reported attitude or feelings in the form of direct speech (whether or not representing an actual quotation). so she comes into the room and she's like “Where is everybody?” – Google.
    – Mazura
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 0:31
  • @Mazura thanks for the google link. Alas, google (or even dictionary definitions) for new / colloquial speech is not necessarily to be trusted.
    – Att Righ
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 19:56

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