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The Complexities of Like

My dad and I were sitting over the ruins of a holiday feast. I paused in whatever I was expounding upon to correct my own grammar, and thence was launched an interesting foray into one of the complexities of the English language.

 

Here’s what I said that gave me pause:

People, like you and I, want to visit such a place.

 

I needed a moment to think about whether it was “you and me” or “you and I.” “You and I” is correct because “people” includes “you” and the speaker (me), so the subject is the same and the case is the same. I wouldn’t have had the question at all, if I hadn’t tried to include my dad.

 

This is correct:

People like me want to visit the place.

 

So why doesn’t the same subject rule apply for “like you and I”?

 

The reason is that the word “like” takes a different form in each of those sentences. We were perplexed by this inconsistency, so we pulled up the dictionary. Hold onto your hats: I think you’re about to be very surprised. The word “like” has ten functions!

 

Verb: to be suitable or agreeable (I am fond of tomatoes but they don’t like me); to feel attraction toward or enjoy (I like Mozartkugeln); to feel toward (I would like to visit); to wish to have (I would like more Mozartkugeln); to do well in (I like to live in SF). (Note that verbs and their definitions involve the word “to” in their infinitive form. If you can apply “to” without changing the meaning, it’s a verb.)

 

Verb intransitive: to approve (if you like it); to feel inclined (you can come over any time you’d like).

 

Adjective: the same or nearly the same (houses of like design).

 

Preposition: similar to (it’s like a dream); approximating (it takes something like three teaspoons); comparable to (acts like a big shot); as though there would be (it looks like it might snow); such as (a tool like a hammer); and it’s used to form intensive or ironic phrases (fought like crazy, like hell you say).

 

Noun: one that is similar or a counterpart (never seen the like before); of a kind, usually used with a preceding possessive (put him and his like in a cell); one of many that are similar to each other, used chiefly in proverbial expressions (like breeds like); and so on, et cetera (empty boxes and the like).

 

Noun, the likes or the like of: such people or things as (people the likes of you, poets the like of Pope); the kind or sort of (a party the likes of which had seldom been seen).

 

Adverb: probably (you’ll blow it, like as not)

 

Interjection and adverb: as emphasis or to create a pause (it was, like, all messy); as an apologetic, vague, or unassertive effect (I need to, like, interrupt for a minute); before a general dimension (it was like five feet long).

 

Conjunction: as if (they look like they might enjoy it); as an intensifier (drove like mad, hurts like crazy); in a similar way (they eat it like candy); in the way or manner that (the gown looks like a prom dress should, did it like you told me); with “it’s” to report a generally held opinion (it’s like, who cares if we’re late); such as (it’s a bag like Linda carries).

 

Verbal auxiliary: came near (I laughed so hard I like to fell off my chair). This is archaic and not commonly used anymore.

 

There are lots of words based on like, like: likely, likeable, likelihood, liken, likeness, and liking, some of which can be used in place of the less likely forms in my list above, as can the words as, as if, such as, or an entirely different construction altogether.

 

Webster’s provides a lovely little usage guide that proclaims that “like has been used as a conjunction since the 14th century… [it was later] used in serious literature but not often, and [more recently it has grown quite common]….Grammarians [wrangled] over whether it was a preposition [as well as a conjunction] until the middle of the 19th century.

 

Isn’t that something? Such a common little word has so much power.

 

Definitions are from Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, examples are mine alone.