linguistics and lexicography Love English

What’s not to like about ‘like’?

© treenabeena / Fotolia.comAmong the more recent additions to the Macmillan Dictionary are the social networking uses of like. Social networking has spawned a lot of new vocabulary: not only new words (like hashtag, defriend, and twittersphere) but new meanings of existing words (such as follow, tweet – and like). We currently include around 20 new usages related to social networking, with a further 26 in the crowdsourced Open Dictionary (some of which may well be ‘promoted’ to the main dictionary in due course).

Like is a versatile word (it can be a preposition, conjunction, adjective, adverb, noun, or verb) with a long and interesting history. In its earliest use, the verb meant something like ‘to please’ – so the usual way of saying that you liked something was to say ‘it likes me’. Shakespeare’s King Lear (Act II Scene 2) provides an example:

    Cornwall. Why dost thou call him knave? What is his fault?
    Kent. His countenance likes me not.

In this original use of like, English was in line with Spanish (me gusta), Greek (μου αρέσει), Italian (mi piace), and several other languages. In the usual current meaning, the roles are reversed, with ‘it likes me not’ becoming ‘I don’t like it’ – though quite when (or why) this change occurred is a mystery. And strangely, these two uses co-existed for several hundred years: the ‘modern’ meaning goes back as far as Middle English, yet the original meaning could still be found as late as the 19th century.

In the language of social networking, ‘liking’ something isn’t the same as just enjoying it or thinking it’s good. You have to actually do something. When we are encouraged to ‘Like us on Facebook’, or we’re told that ‘Kati Sule, Stan Carey, and 25 others have liked this page’, it is clear that we are not looking at a stative verb. You can’t ‘like’ something unless you click on a button or icon. The corresponding noun use is similarly distinct from any existing sense. Your ‘likes’ can mean ‘things you like’ but this really only occurs in the fixed expression likes and dislikes. As an example of the newer meaning, there is a banner on Macmillan’s ‘What’s Your English’ Facebook page saying it has ‘13,089 likes’.

Like has acquired all sorts of uses over the years. Its (relatively recent) use in reporting direct speech (And I was like ‘What are you talking about?’) is widely disliked by traditionalists, but there are probably more changes to come. There is evidence, for example, that some stative verbs (including like in its usual sense) are increasingly used in progressive (or –ing) forms:

In this instance, I’m thinking that it would be cool to have the guitar double the bass line.
I think that the film has a lot to offer and I’m happy that people are liking it

You’ll see that our entry for like has a grammar label saying ‘[not usually progressive]’. That still holds true, but this trend towards the –ing form is something we will be keeping an eye on. Equally, there are clear signs of a new syntax pattern emerging. At present, we record the use of like with a gerund (I like going out to parties) and with an infinitive clause (He always liked to sleep late on Sundays). But what about these?

As with the first book, I like that we only see what Kay sees and nothing more or less.
I like that it still retains a small-town atmosphere.

This looks like a form of ellipsis, a shortened version of ‘I like the fact that…’, but it seems likely that – sooner or later- we will need to add a that-clause to the grammar patterns at like. You just have to like this word!

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Michael Rundell


  • Nice post Michael – and of course in the same way ‘favourite (favorite’) is taking on a new mantle courtesy of Twitter, now converted to verb, similarly non-stative and possible in progressive forms, etc …As a noun in this sense, it’s not so much ‘the thing you like best’, but more of a virtual thumbs up or expression of approval.

  • And translating things like “Like us on Facebook” into languages that employ the reverse construction is a proper nightmare. Thanks, Middle English!

  • You’re spot on about ‘like’ + ‘that’-clause being an emerging pattern; it could be a shortened form of ‘I like it that’ (“I like it that the jeans have no weird knee patches”) – with a dummy ‘it’ – which is a more established pattern. The verbs ‘want’ and ‘love’ seem to be going the same way, as well as the adjective ‘fine’ (“I’m totally fine that we have drugs companies innovating new products” (Ben Goldacre)). It’s fascinating that such very basic verb patterns are changing – I can’t imagine what mechanisms of language change are favouring the selection of a ‘that’-clause for this particular meaning group.

  • Me again – forgot to mention that as you know there’s another major change in the use of ‘like’ – sense 4 in the dictionary: “He sounded like he’d only just woken up” – where ‘like’ is a conjunction with the meaning ‘as if’. This sense has cautiously been labelled ‘spoken’, though many of the usual prescriptivists angrily declare it to be downright WRONG. I’m fine with it and use it all the time, but in writing I stick to ‘as if’ – it’s a generational thing. ‘Like’ will surely take over completely from ‘as if’ in this sense, and sooner or later the ‘spoken’ label will be dropped.

  • Art: thanks for the YouTube link – well worth following, I hadn’t seen it before – and i’m one of those people who ‘like’ Joseph O’Connor’s books.

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