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Can someone explain why I need to set off the adverb like with commas? I saw The New Yorker use it in a recent article,

A senior defense official told me that Kahl was surprised by whom he was about to contact: “He was, like, ‘Why am I calling Elon Musk?’ ”

though I needed to double check to see whether it’s just another case of the magazine’s idiosyncratic typographical style. But then Merriam-Webster also used it in its example, and so did Google (Oxford) Dictionary, who curiously did not do the same for its second example.

I find this first comma really odd. It’s not a prosodic comma, as far as I can tell, because no one pauses after “was” (but does after “like”). I’d also understand if it was an adverbial phrase, but it’s not! I don’t see anyone cutting off other adverbs like this either. (“She was, very, mad.” [?])

So, grammarians, why do I need the first comma?

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    You need the comma pair or none at all. Using like in that way, as an aside like this one, calls for a pair of commas. Such asides used to be called parenthetical expressions in that we might have set them off with a pair of parentheses. Aug 22, 2023 at 20:04
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    This is fresh territory, but the parenthetical commas look like someone trying to apply old rules to a new invention. I would go with zero commas, since the quotation is not really a direct quotation but a characterization of someone's response or attitude. Related: History of "I was like ..." or "I was all ..."
    – Robusto
    Aug 22, 2023 at 20:32
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    Does this answer your question? "Be like" usage Aug 23, 2023 at 14:26

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In this example, like isn't being used as a parenthetical or discourse marker (as when, like, people, like, add it, like, to whatever they say). Instead, this is an example of the quotative like, in which "to be like" essentially means "to say approximately."

In the Merriam-Webster example sentences for this sense, they use a comma only after the word "like": "so I'm like, 'Give me a break'". But in the Cambridge page on the subject, they don't use any commas at all: "Jason was like 'I’m not going to Alma’s party because Chris is going to be there.'"

Since this usage of like is so informal, there isn't really a standard way of punctuating it; the only sensible option is to follow prosody, looking for the pause and change in tone that a comma usually designates. In this case, I think that most would use that change in tone after, but not before, the word "like," making Merriam-Webster's convention correct.

So why does The New Yorker get this wrong? I suspect it's because they confused the quotative like with the parenthetical like I mentioned earlier. That one, being a parenthetical, actually should be surrounded by commas on both sides.

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  • Also, The New Yorker never met a punctuation mark it didn't overuse.
    – Robusto
    Aug 23, 2023 at 0:57
  • Be like doesn’t mean to say “approximately.” So I said, “Give me a break” and So I go, “Give me a break” and So I’m like, “Give me a break” — those are equivalent. Though you can use be like to express a thought or inner monologue as well as an utterance. Aug 23, 2023 at 3:28
  • @TinfoilHat That comma before direct speech looks increasingly redundant. I said she should get more recognition has no comma while I said, "She should get more recognition" does though without a satisfactory reason. It looks like a misinterpretation of the parenthetical commas in the insertion "She should get more recognition," I said, "for her excellent work"
    – Henry
    Aug 23, 2023 at 9:26
  • @Henry — The satisfactory reason for the comma before direct speech in dialogue is that that is how it is done: I said, “She should get more recognition” If you want reported speech: I said [that] she should get more recognition. The interesting thing about it all is that you can’t use was like with reported speech. *I was like [that] she should get more recognition. Aug 23, 2023 at 15:14
  • +1 for follow prosody
    – Greybeard
    Aug 23, 2023 at 17:23

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