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Real Grammar Quiz, Question 8: can “like” be used as a conjunction?

Macmillan Dictionary – Real GrammarReal Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan DictionaryReal Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.

In this series, we’ll be bringing you blog posts and videos that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. There’s even a Real Grammar quiz for you to try.



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In the eighth question in our Real Grammar quiz, we asked which of these sentences is acceptable:

Nobody could play the trumpet as he did.
Nobody could play the trumpet like he did.

Like must be one of the most versatile words in the English language. Its use in conversation to report what someone has said is well-established:

I called her and she was like,”it’s so cool to talk to you”.

More recently, it has acquired new noun and verb uses connected with social media:

This has had over 500 likes.
To view the most-recent posts you have liked, go to your account settings and tap Posts You’ve Liked.

Like is used as an adverb, adjective, preposition, verb, and noun. But can it also be used as a conjunction? (Prepositions are followed by a noun or pronoun – “She’s a teacher, like me” – but conjunctions are used to connect clauses, and are often followed by a subordinate clause such as “I arrived late because my train was delayed“.)

The traditionalist view is that it is wrong to use like as a conjunction. According to the Economist Style Guide, “Like governs nouns and pronouns [i.e. it is a preposition], not verbs and clauses… So “as Grandma used to make them”, not “like Grandma used to make them”.

But the evidence suggests that like is widely used in this “incorrect” way. The OED has examples going back as far as 1530, including this one from Shakespeare’s Pericles Prince of Tyre

… like an arrow shot
From a well-experienced archer hits the mark
His eye doth level at, so thou ne’er return
Unless thou say ‘Prince Pericles is dead.’

As for its use in contemporary texts, corpus data provides numerous examples of like-as-conjunction, such as these

We’re not going to win if we play like we did against Liverpool.
We had a selection of bikes ready for him to try, just like we do for all our customers.
It has been described as “like Alaska used to be 50-75 years ago, but better”.

But (in its first edition), the OED says this use is “now generally condemned as vulgar or slovenly” — while accepting that examples can be found in “writers of standing”. The usually conservative American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) notes that usage guides have “condemned the conjunctive use of like for more than a century”. But AHD does not condemn it, merely observing that it has “a somewhat informal or conversational flavor”. This is a fair summary of the situation: most of the instances found in our corpus are from less formal text-types. So, as we conclude in the video, “like and as can both be used as conjunctions, but like is a little more informal”.

There is a related use of the conjunction where it equates not to as but to as if, which can be substituted in any of these sentences

He’s spending money like there’s no tomorrow
She had an eerie, creepy feeling, like there was someone in the house with her
Everyone looks at me like I’m evil.

It often follows linking verbs such as seem, feel, look or sound:

It seemed like there was an enormous amount of information to be learnt about the building and the archaeology of the area.
On close examination, it looked like there was a very small leakage around the flanges.
When he smiled, she looked like she might burst into tears.

This is similarly disliked by prescriptivists, but – if anything – it is even less objectionable, and examples of this pattern can be found even in more formal discourse.

To read more about Real Grammar, keep a close eye on our Real Grammar page. You can catch up with the videos on our YouTube channel, where the ninth video in the series is now live. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar”.

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Michael Rundell

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