Mind your language

The word ‘like’ is in crisis

6 March 2021

9:00 AM

6 March 2021

9:00 AM

‘Blame Kingsley Amis,’ said my husband, with the carelessness of one defying a man out of earshot. The blame, such as it was, lay in the title of the novel Take a Girl Like You (1960). The ambiguity in the title, he maintained, was between like meaning ‘such as’ and likemeaning ‘resembling’.

There is something in what he says. Likehas been in crisis for a generation on several fronts. The most hated is probably likeas an oral filler, along with you know or sort of. A second annoying usage is stranger: likeintroducing a made-up quotation serving as an adjective. An example would be to replace ‘He was angry’ with the construction: ‘He was, like: “Just leave me alone”.’

But I often now come across attempts to avoid what may be labelled the Husband Ambiguity by using similar to. ‘Qualifications similar to GCSE and A-levels,’ is an example I saw recently. The writer must have wanted to show he meant ‘resembling’, not ‘such as’.

Sometimes similar to fails to get a writer out of trouble. ‘Similar to an ordinary press-up, you want to keep your arms straight,’ wrote a keep-fit writer in the Telegraph. Perhaps he realised that ‘Like an ordinary press up, you…’ was not what he meant. The answer would have been as with.

It is surprising to find journalists so much at odds with common idiom. ‘Similar to previous years most people sleeping rough were male,’ I read in the Guardian. In speech, wouldn’t the author naturally say ‘as in previous years’? Perhaps not.

Sometimes it would have been quite right to stay with likeinstead of seeking an alternative. ‘The Moderna vaccine, similar to the Pfizer/BioNTech version, is based on re-engineering mRNA,’ wrote someone else in the Guardian. Of course it would be fine to say that one vaccine is similar to the other. As it is, the author, having shifted a buttock from the comfortable support of like, falls between two stools.

Someone recently sent me an email with a very weird piece of syntax. It avoids an erroneous like but then falls into gibberish: ‘Same as Richard Ford was attracted by Spain, I am attracted by Germany.’ Me no like.

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