Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Readers’ Questions

 

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: I am interested in what you have to say about the (over) use of the word like. I sure hope this one dies on the vine soon! -Carol Morgan, Elfin Forest

Nowadays two speech patterns of the younger generation squeak like chalk across the blackboard of adult sensibilities — the sprinkling of like throughout sentences, like, you know what I’m saying, and the use of another species of like as a replacement of the verb say: “I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s like wicked awesome.'”

Linguists call this second use “quotative,” an introduction to direct speech.

Professor Mark Hale, of the Harvard University Department of Linguistics, says of these speech markers: “This is national in scope. It is not idiosyncratic in any particular part of the country. But it is observed most often among younger people.”

As a trained linguist, I am fascinated by all change in language, and I don’t rush to judgment. The burgeoning of like in American discourse appears to be a verbal tic in the linguistic mold of uh and you know. It offers the speaker’s thoughts an opportunity to catch up with his or her onrushing sentences or to emphasize important points. Take the statement “I didn’t hand in my book report because like the dog peed on my Cliff’s Notes.” Here like is an oral mark of crucial punctuation that indicates “important information ahead.”

According to Professor Hale, increasing numbers of speakers press into service go and like for say as a badge of identification that proclaims, “I am a member of a certain generation and speech community.”

Hmm. My professional rule of thumb is that all linguistic change is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so. Still, the promiscuous employment of like and go stirs my concern about the state of our English language. To most of us, like is a preposition that means that something is similar to something else but is not the idea or thing itself. Thus, dusting statements with a word of approximation seems to me to encourage half thoughts. I fret that the permeating influence of like makes imprecision the norm and keeps both speakers and listeners from coming to grips with the thoughts behind the words. “I’m like a supporter of human rights” lacks the commitment of “I support human rights” because like leads off a simile of general likeness, not a literal statement.

I believe that it is not a coincidence that the quotative like as introductions to quoted speech has accompanied the explosion of like as a rhetorical qualifier. I sense a fear of commitment both to direct thought and to the act of communicating — saying and asserting one’s observations and opinions. Whenever I hear a young person — or, as is increasingly the case, an older person — declare “She’s, like, ‘I’m like totally committed to human rights,'” I want to say (not I’m like), “Is she really committed? Did she really mean what she said?”

“Language is the Rubicon that divides man from beast,” declared the philologist Max Muller. The boundary between our species and the others on this planet that run and fly and creep and swim is the language line. To blur that line by replacing verbs of speaking with verbs of simile is to deny the very act that defines our kind.

I’m like it’s totally uncool.

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: How should one use the word literally? Is it just an emphasis word saying this is 100% true and not exaggerated? -Christopher Schwinger, Valley Center

I hope that you are keeping your eyes glued to this page, but only figuratively glued. If your eyes were literally epoxied to this text, you would be ocularly challenged and wouldn’t be able to read a word I’ve written. In fact, the chances of that happening are about as small as the chances of your literally rolling in the aisles while watching a funny movie or literally drowning in tears while watching a sad one.

Don’t use literally, “by the letter; strictly construed,” when you mean figuratively, “so to speak.”

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: My husband insists that you itch an itch and scratch a scratch. I say that you scratch an itch. Who’s right? -Jennifer Santoro, La Jolla

You are, Jennifer. When something itches, you want to scratch it. The verb itch doesn’t take an object, and you certainly don’t want to scratch a scratch. That way lies infection.