Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Ontology of "Like"

I have been pondering why so many Americans, especially those under thirty, use the word "like" so often and so unnecessarily. It has become a verbal tick, a gratuitous punctuation with no grammatical purpose. Yes, it is annoying, but I push on. Example:

"So, I was, like, going to the theater, and like, I saw Joe, who I hadn't seen for, like, two years. Then, like, we went went to the movie together, which was about, like..."

You get the idea. Why is this happening?! ("Sort of" is also experiencing a new hypertrophied existence--a related problem.)

Perhaps the reason is that people hesitate to state anything unequivocally, to affirm with conviction. Therefore, nothing is what it is (the law of identity), it is only "like" something else. Resemblance or similarity is all we can commit to. This way, one doesn't have to affirm anything concrete about objective existence.

The locutions "somewhat like" or " X is like Y" are fine, if used carefully; they are informative. But inserting "like" everywhere guts language, eviscerating anything categorical or unequivocal. Perhaps the oral addiction to "like" indicates an epistemological malaise or vertigo, a lack of confidence that some things can be known (=knowledge: justified, true belief). Postmodern culture makes information endlessly available, but knowledge harder to find and secure. Many of our verbalizations reflect this condition of information overload/knowledge deficit. So, we hear:

"So, I was reading the Bible, and I thought, 'Jesus is, like, God. And if Jesus is, like, God, then it would have, like, consequences for my life. But, whatever; it's sorta weird. I do like Jesus, like, really, but, you know...'"


pgepps said...

one could also point out that the English "to be" verb system is creaking and groaning under the weight of passivity; expletive construction; nominalization; and positivistic conflation of naming, identity, description, and characterization. One feels the need to begin borrowing the Pali "sive" and using the Continental language of being/becoming, while enforcing an action-verb-laden vocabulary, just to avoid the rut of, like, approximating being while seeming to assert identity....

Epistemic pessimism is only a problem if your faith is in epistemes. :-) "I trust the ever-living One; His wounds for me shall plead."

I am chris. said...

Or it could just be a bad habit.

jordan said...

I think "like" is either the new "um" (a filler), or some celebrity started doing it and it eventually trickled down to the masses

John said...

I agree with your assessment--words mean things and reflect the cultural milieu. While I agree that "like" has become another way of saying "um," to say that is all it means is to ignore the larger issue that Mr. Groothuis is addressing.

This is dead-on, in my opinion, "This way, one doesn't have to affirm anything concrete about objective existence."

Our use of language begun to reflect that truth has been lost and few are bold enough to proclaim that it exists and is binding.

That is one of the things I greatly appreciated about the Taylor Mali video you linked to some time ago. He gets it--at least in part. We, as Christians should have an even keener understanding of what has been lost.

Bob Hunter said...

The Christian equivalent shows up in a lot of prayers. "Lord we just come to you and just ask you to just...."

J.E. McFatter said...

Whether the use of "like" stems orginally from lack of conviction or epistemological confidence, I don't know. But most likely it has become a widespread term because it subconciously enters a person's speaking patterns without the speaker realizing it, because the speaker is consistently around people who use it often. And it definitely seems to be a filler, a bad habit, not a sign of someone's lack of intelligence or inability to articulate when it is vital. I personally know a doctor, a professor, a lawyer, and plenty of graduate students who overuse this word, and all of them remember that it started when they began to hang around people who used it constantly. This phenomena is similar to what happened when I moved back to the South this past year and began incorporating southern slang all the time (ya'll, fixin', ain't, etc.) without even realizing it.

I think that the use of these fillers can sometimes be linked to a person's poor vocabulary or inability to describe, define, or explain clearly. But often it is a trait of intelligent people who are more absorbed in debating, recounting, or explaining than they are in self-monitoring their own speech. For these people (often absent-minded in other ways as well), picking up little phrases or even accents from those around them is nearly inevitable, so that if their circle of colleages and friends were to change, slight speech patterns would change as well.

Granted, it can definitely be annoying, and many people who use these terms hate the fact that they abuse them. (I use the phrase "you know what I mean?" way too much). But as long as a person is aware that they are doing it, there is a chance that they can change. Either undergo intense self-discipline and learn to self-monitor, or find some articulate friends.

So the first step is letting our friends know that they are using these fillers,and to ask if we are guilty of the same. If the accused get angry and resentful, their is little chance they will change. But if they admit that they do it, and that is a ridiculous habit, then they might be well on their way toward clear speech.

"You know what I mean?"

(see, it is even more annoying when typed)

David said...

You are certainly correct about two things: young people today often poorly express themselves in language, and there is widespread hesitancy to embrace the unequivocal truth of various propositions.

But I don't think the former is necessarily a symptom of the latter. That is, I agree with Jordan and take these verbal ticks to be (mostly) harmless fillers in our communications with others.

Do young people need to be gently instructed how to speak and write properly? Yes, of course. But are their failures in this area indicative of a philosophical attitude regarding truth and knowledge? Most likely not.

Josh Mickelson said...

I get really annoyed by this as well. It seems like a lot of people have “filler” words they use when they are speaking. It’s a momentary nanosecond for them to collect their thoughts or something. I will say that it seems as if most generations have them though. My Grandma says “So” as her filler word. Ie “I have had a great week, I went on a lovely walk in the park so…….” It’s as if she never finishes a sentence! Everything is connected with the word “so” making one large run-on…haha.

Gary said...

So...Josh. Did you just write: "to collect their thoughts or something"?

I believe Dr. G is on target. The "whatever" filler response ushered in postmodernism.

Kevin Winters said...

There is no indication that the word "like" is used to express epistemic uncertainty or lack of an ability to make a commitment to "objective truth." When questioned or challenged, you never hear the person defend themselves by saying, "But I used the term 'like'!" Furthermore, when used in spoken narratives there is rarely any indication that the person, by using "like" so much, has doubts as to what really happened (though they will express it differently if they do have doubts; the "like" is never seen as sufficient for showing uncertainty in their speech). In fact, it's often quite the opposite where they are certain that their narration and understanding of the event *is* what happened.

I'm with the other posters who say it is a linguistic filler. Any attempt to pawn this off on so-called postmodern relativism is unwarranted.


"The "whatever" filler response ushered in postmodernism."

Really? I don't see the term used in Heidegger, early or later, especially not in the way we are talking about it here. It's certainly not used by Derrida or Foucault in their arguments, as a means of responding to an argument. Nietzsche never showed non-commitment as a virtue (quite the opposite). So there's four *major* so-called "postmodern" figures off the list; is it really representative when such big heads would not accepted it? Do you mean, instead, that it is the cultural appropriation of a stark misunderstanding of these figures? Then I could agree with you. :o)

Daniel said...

The postmodernism discussion aside, I think the overt use of "like" is merely a bad habit. The actual word itself is irrelevant. It appears that Doug's concern is blatant OVER-use of any word. For which I would agree.

Nevertheless, each generation undoubtedly suffers from some sort of hyper word use. Being in the generation that overuses "like", to which I too sometimes fall prey, I try to catch myself. It's difficult though, ask any alcoholic going cold turkey. Bad habits can be fixed, but it takes time, and patience from all parties involved.

As to Bob Hunter's concern about "just".... I think it's a filler word. Overused? Yes. Unnecessary? Yes. Would God rather have us not pray at all than to use filler words like "just"? No. Pray with earnest, pray from the heart, God will hear your prayer...even if you say "just".

david said...

Just noticed there is a David on here too, this could get interesting!

One thing I have observed with the usage of "like" is that young people commonly use it to transition into a first person expression in the middle of a description...for example:

I almost got hit by a car the other day and I was like, "oh my goodness", but luckily I avoided it. This guy on the side of the road was all like, "dude you almost died" [insert waving hand motions] and I was like, "yea that was crazy"...

I'm pretty young (24) so I encounter this often. From my experience it emerged about the time Clueless hit the theaters, i.e. the valley girl attitude that swept the nation with cute little expressions like the L for loser, or 'talk to the hand'...

The need to abruptly change from description to first-person mid-sentence (which itself is usually childish) may have increased the "likening effect."

It really speaks to how image-driven media (and I'm on a Neil Postman sermon now) has given rise to the insufficiency of a simple statement such as, "I was surprised" to convey meaning. No no! we need to see an exaggerated facial expression and comedic staggering.

Now I don't mean to say that expressions aren't helpful because they are, but I think this example is part of a larger problem where every sentence has to contain something visually stimulating or else young folks tune out pretty quickly. Let me stop preaching from my little pulpit now. :)

David said...

Well, I didn't find any of your thoughts unreasonable, so I don't mind if readers get the two of us confused. Just let me know when you write something egregious, so I can alert everyone that I was not the author of such illicit comments. Ha!

Doug Groothuis said...

1. Yes, "like" can be a verbal tick, a filler word. But the roots, I think, are more philosophical. Why says "like" and not "um," for instance? It also substitutes for a colon, as when people report their thoughts or a situation: "So, I was, like, wow, what do I say now?"

2. Yes, very smart people can overuse "like," mostly because they are not monitoring their own speech (as they should) and because they pick it up like an infection (that was a sound use of "like") from others. Saying "like" much is not a necessary or sufficient indicator of a lack of intelligence.

3. I suggest that instead of inserting studder words ("like," "um," "you know," etc) that we simply remain silent until the proper thought finds the right word.

4. I watched on old five-minute interview on YouTube of Jimi Hendrix by Dick Cavet (circa 1968-9). Hendrix said, "like" quite a bit unnecessarily.

Kevin Winters said...

Why is the distinction between "like" and "um" somehow an indication of philosophical roots? When we look at the use of "like" when it is overused in the cases we are talking about, "like" doesn't seem to fulfill a philosophical or epistemological function for the person who uses it. As I argued, a person who uses "like" never points to that fact as an argument or justification for what they said. Beyond the use of the word itself (see next paragraph on this point), what in the use of "like" shows this philosophical significance that you are claiming is there?

Furthermore, the fact that "like" can also mean "appearance" or "resemblance" doesn't mean that its overuse even implies this meaning. When someone says that someone else is "hot" we don't then imply that the person is somehow referring to their body temperature! The connection that you make in your post on this matter is tenuous.

Kevin Winters said...

But let me also say that I am occasionally annoyed by this linguistic oddity. It is indeed unnecessary.

pgepps said...

I think if you reckoned the "filler" use as following from an only partially grammaticalized but semantically meaningful overuse of the word "like," you could argue on a scale of two generations or so (bearing in mind this overuse stems from at least the 70s as "Valley Girl" talk) that the use of phrases such as "it's like when" and the inability to distinguish "such as" from "like" (exemplification versus similitude) has some such creeping epistemic malaise attached to it--but that would tell you nothing, yet, about causes and consequences.

And the simple fact will remain that confidence may be shaken for many reasons--including its unfoundedness.

Michael Deal said...

I was recently standing in line at the check out of our local Big W (which is basically an Australian version of Wal Mart) and the girl in front of me spoke to the check out girl who must have been a friend.

She said "What time do you finish work?"

"I finish work at, like, two o'clock."

Great economy of speech, but she still managed to slip in the Paris Hiltonesque verbal blank brain pause, "Like".

Anna said...

Found your blog through a friend who found your blog through someone else's...there's the connection for you! That's some very deep thinking there! Love it! I was a phil. major and so I completely respect the thought process behind that. Maybe the original "creator" of using "like" incessantly thought all of those things but it would seem that currently it is a learned trait.

I have a friend in the Army who heard profanity non-stop. It began to pop into his head with out any control on his part. He had to work hard to filter it and make sure it didn't come out of his mouth. Something inncocent though, like the word "like"...I can see how it would penetrate one's vocabulary without us even realizing it. Our vocabulary is deteriating but I think it has more to do with our lack of reading and with writers no longer using the majority of the Engligh language.

It's also a "filler" word. People use it to fill space while they are thinking of the next thing to say. Maybe if we were more comtemplative about our words we wouldn't say it as much...maybe :-)

A. B. Caneday said...

For complex and varied reasons I have been a keen observer of language usage since I was a child. I have studiously resisted adopting pop-speech patterns and cliché.

All kinds of vocal pauses and ticks have entered speech patterns that individuals throughout our society uncritically take into their own speech patterns because of lightning speed access, through media sources, to regionalisms.

Because "out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34), it seems to me that Doug G. is on the right path to observe that all the verbal (grammatical) qualifiers, popularized by Val Speak, now a widespread American sociolect thanks to Frank Zappa's 1982 hit single "Valley Girl", bespeak a hesitation to affirm anything unequivocally or with conviction whether intentionally or consequentially. Mindlessly spoken words quite telling. A mouth that runs with mindlessness reflects a mindless heart.

The abused "like" is one of several mindlessly abused qualifiers that include others such as "way," "totally," "duh," etc., all interjected into the middle of phrases, clauses, and sentences as emphasizers.

Another speech pattern of the same origin is uptalk, or upspeak, the use of narrative sentences spoken as though they were questions. This is also called high rising terminal or high rising intonation. Uptalk is the use of declarative sentences spoken as though they were interrogatives, questions. Females more readily and more frequently engage in uptalk than males do. I do not hear uptalk nearly as frequently as I did five to ten years ago. While uptalk seems to have diminished, the abused like, however, has become far more ubiquitous over the same period. Though some suppose that uptalk is a subtle form of signaling that the speaker is not yet finished speaking, thus discouraging interruption, my observations suggest that uptalk expresses uncertainty, the kind that Doug G. has suggested concerning the abuse of like.

Here is another annoying abuse of like. Careful observation reveals that for many public speakers and writers like has also come to replace the conjunction that following certain words as in "It seems like. . . ." I see this regularly in published materials. It somehow slips past editors.

A speech pattern tick of more recent vintage is the now ubiquitous "I mean. . . ." One hears this frequently during interviews with athletes. Now one hears this tick throughout society. I first observed this "I mean" tick during sports media interviews with athletes who are notorious for uttering mindless clichés (e.g., "give 110%"). Few sports announcers, of course, are hardly any better.

Mindlessness uncritically adopts the speech patterns one hears. My parents taught my siblings and me to be mindful listeners and mindful speakers. They taught us to be disciplined not only in our behavior and attitudes but also in our speech. I am deeply grateful for this. It has yielded a life of few regrets.

pgepps said...

I also applaud those who whet critical faculties against the persistent infestation of verbal tics.

(note the spelling)

However, while linking "like" as a particular sort of filler that undermines assertion to "uptalk" does have a sort of short-term validity within at least some recent American subgroups, the more we multiply examples to quasi-empirically establish such a point, the more our need to appear to assert answers undermines the critical value of the question thus posed ("Are you using that word to indicate diffidence, insecurity, uncertainty, mindlessness, or epistemological pessismism?").

Two examples from Caneday's marvelously explicit post will help reinforce the caution I'm recommending:

1) while mindlessness is quite objectionable, and while quite a few people repeat relativistic shibboleths of modernism with exactly the mindlessness implied by Zappa's number, or the Alicia Silverstone rendition of Jane Austen's Emma, actual mindlessness ("I have no idea why I say it, it just sounds cool") and a consciously adopted style of mindlessness ("I guess I just talk like that because it wasn't cool to be smart in my high school") are not the same.

Neither, in turn, is really the same as the strategy of avoiding unqualified assertion. In fact, one of the most memorable passages from Ben Franklin's Autobiography is the one where he points out that diffidence of expression signifies thoughtfulness, while a habit of unqualified assertion signifies thoughtlessness--er, mindlessness, that is, what the Proverbs calls "folly." I'm not suggesting that Valley Girl language is the rhetoric of Wisdom--far from it. I am pointing out that setting up the dichotomy "like" versus "unqualified assertion" is inadequate.

It will do for purposes of curmudgeonliness--I often make precisely such slightly overbroad suggestions to my students, but I also inform them that doing so as a part of pedagogy necessarily assumes that they will seek (by discussion and maturation) the implicit qualifications.

2) Again, linking "uptalk" to the overuse of "like" has a certain narrow validity in recent American expression, but it simply will not do to press those very hard. In Japanese, a common stress habit stems from the delay of predicates and sentence-final particles to the very end of the sentence; the speaker can order words and stress so as to actually be able to change the meaning of the sentence based on the auditor's reactions to the most likely meaning of the sentence opening. Such habits arise from the importance of social correctness in speech, and lead to an esteem for indirect, high-context discourse (with many omitted portions to be kept in mind or implied by both parties), and is anything but mindful.

Again, you may argue that the Japanese habit of diffidence in speech is tied neatly to their risk-averse cultural habits, but you can do so only by admitting that this is a complex rhetorical strategy quite incompatible with "mindlessness" of the sort the generates mere verbal tics.

Obviously, the initial claim (though humorously labelled "ontology") was overbroad for rhetorical purposes; but it is overbroad, and the multiplication of examples serves rather to overburden than to buttress its shaky foundations.

pgepps said...

oh, and good grief, I let the Japanese example intrude on what I first intended to point out:

"like" is most commonly misused in place of "as though" and not in place of "that."

That is, "I felt like I was being abandoned" for "I felt as though I were being abandoned" is much more common than "I thought like I was being abandoned" for "I thought that I was being abandoned." The key issue here is the disappearance of the subjunctive from English.

pgepps said...

apologies for repeat posting, but an important typo correction:

Such habits arise from the importance of social correctness in speech, and lead to an esteem for indirect, high-context discourse (with many omitted portions to be kept in mind or implied by both parties), and is anything but XmindfulX mindless.

Doug Groothuis said...


Excellent and insightful post; I mean, I was, like, impressed (rising inflection).

One of my students used "like" five times in about two sentences in class this week. I held back, but wanted to point out the tic.

The rising inflection indicates uncertainty--and it is untterly, unspeakably annoying.

Here are some other tics:

"Let me tell ya," "Well, you know" (even Mitt Romney starts every response with this), "I'm telling ya," "uh." It is amazing how often some people insert "uh." I once heard an announcement in a church that lasted about two minutes that features about 20 "uhs." What is wrong with pausing, saying nothing, until the proper word is spoken?

We hate silence, I suppose, so we insert meaningless words to fill it.

A. B. Caneday said...

Thanks Peter (pgepps) for your comments. When I introduced the issue of uptalk, I wondered if you might interject the issue concerning Japanese intonation. I should have been more explicit that I was speaking only of recent American speech patterns and not HRT/HRI generally. You graciously granted my point without me expressly stating it. Thank you.

I accept your point concerning Benjamin Franklin's observation about diffidence of expression and thoughfulness versus the habit of unqualified assertion signaling thoughtlessness. I readily concede the point acknowledge its validity. I would maintain, however, that the speech patterns of which we are speaking with the mindless insertion of qualifiers into phrases and clauses, whatever they may be (like, way, totally, duh, etc.), exhibits mindlessness. Thus, true as the biblical Proverbs are, to which you allude, and true as Franklin's observations are, a third observation has validity also, namely the connection between heart overflow and running at the mouth (Matthew 12:34).

Allow me to comment on another common tic, particularly among evangelicals. It is a tic that has no connection to the Valley, but is nonetheless about as annoying as ValSpeak. I risk treading on sacred ground by saying this. So, I ask all to bear with me patiently. Listen to prayers. When some people pray, they fall into a tic pattern of speech by repeatedly and mindlessly inserting Lord or Father or God or some other divine ascription into the middle of phrases and clauses. Just as with comments I made in my earlier note, this note steps beyond the content of Doug G.'s initial blog entry.

BTW, I have a confession to make, thanks to Peter's kindly pointing it out. Thoughtlessness can enter into our writing just as it can enter into our speaking. Though linguists are careful to listen for ticks to decipher speech, I should have written tic, which I intended to refer not to a particular sound but to a habitual spasmodic and mindless interjection of intrusive words into one's speaking. Thanks, again, Peter for your gracious manner.

Doug Groothuis said...

Tics in prayers are especially annoying. We are addressing no less than The Allmighty.

I once heard a pastoral prayer that included over 30 references to "Father." Apparently, this became the equivalent of a comma. Would we ever talk to our father or mother this way?

We need intelligent, dignified, theologically sound prayer of all forms: lament, petition, praise, thanksgiving.

pgepps said...

Well, gentlemen, all cautions about taking broad gestures of speech too literally aside, I wholeheartedly agree that a mindlessness of speech--a constant inability to settle on a meaning and commit to it, even at risk of having to retract it--is undoubtedly a handicap.

And that goes double for those mindless insertions into prayer-talk.

...I actually regret having put "note the spelling" into my reply. That violates another dictum from Franklin, actually. How pedantic of me.

Thank you all for gracious and enlightening discussion!

A. B. Caneday said...


When I posted a couple of comments on this entry of yours, a few weeks ago, I should have posted this YouTube link. Perhaps you have seen it. It makes your point about speech patterns and does it with humor.

david said...

a.b. caneday,
His speech was excellent, thank you for sharing it!