Like (discourse particle)
This is one of the more popular markers among young speakers, as well as among various linguists who have studied it (Andersen 1998, Andersen 2000, Green 2001, Miller & Weinert 1995, Schourup 1983, Underhill 1988). It exact function still remains somewhat unclear or controversial, but is probably multi-functional, serving mainly as a "softener," hedge marker or approximative, and as perhaps secondarily as a focus marker of some type. At the same time, it conveys social solidarity, and is used most often in within-peer-group settings. Some teenagers and young adults tend to overuse it, to the point of putting it in almost every sentence, which, like, can, like, be really annoying to others.
1 Grammatical classification
English speakers, including second language learners, of course know like as a verb and noun and other common word types. But it can be used in many other ways. First, the most basic uses of like are:
|1. VERB||I like those chocolate bars imported from Germany. I'd like to have 5kg, please.|
|2. NOUN||This is the time to set aside your likes and dislikes, and work together. |
I always listen to jazz when I study — Spyro Gyra, Kenny G, and the like. [= and such, etc.]
|3. ADJECTIVE||Hey, you're just like my uncle. In a like manner, he went bald at 40, too.|
|4. CONJUNCTION = 'such as, as, as if'||You look like you've just seen a ghost.|
|5. PREPOSITION = 'such as, for example'||I don't eat food like that. I just do things that give me energy like coffee.|
Besides the fairly informal uses of like as a conjunction and preposition, more colloquial uses of like have become popular in English in recent decades. These uses comprise two basic linguistic functions:
|6. REPORTING VERB (QUOTATIVE)||Like and go in slang are used for directly or indirectly quoting, just like say, said, tell. But like and go can also report what one is thinking at the time in the story. Whether it meanssay or thought is often clear from the context; both meanings are often used in the same narrative in very informal speech. |
|7. DISCOURSE PARTICLE||This is a type of word used often in colloquial English and slang. It doesn't really affect the meaning, but it makes your speech flow more smoothly and sound more natural and "cool". It can be used before a noun phrase, adjective, adverb, predicate, or even a whole clause or sentence. Other common discourse particles or discourse markers are well, like, you know, and the sentence-final though. Like and It's like are also used at the beginning of a sentence. We use the discourse marker like in several ways.|
2 Pragmatic functions
2.1 (a) Hedge marker
Like can function as a hedge, "softener", or approximative. It can "soften" a request, to make it more polite. In declarative sentences, it may indicate that what follows is an approximation or somewhat figurative ( = "so to speak, as it where"). Linguists generally consider this to be the primary function of like as a discourse marker.
- Could I like borrow your sweater? (Schourup 1983)
- A. This guy would follow me like every day until I had to call the police.
- B. Is this like O.J. Simpson? (Lee 2000)
- Could you like loan me a hundred bucks?
2.2 (b) Focus marker
As a focus marker, it marks an item or phrase as most salient, due to its status as new information, or in contrast or emphasis; speakers use it to focus the listener's attention on new or important information in a sentence, and thus it can add a little emphasis to the following information (Lee, 2000). It is somewhat similar in function to clefts and sentence stress, but while stress marks one word, like marks the information content of the phrase as salient (focus). It thus facilitates chunking into small units, and because it marks whatever new information follows as important, it facilitates in adding further detail, description, explanation, or examples of the previous point. Like can precede any kind of items, e.g., in the predicate, a whole predicate, a whole phrase.
- A. Okay, do you think it's culturally normative behavior that like, men don't go into women's restrooms and women don't go into men's restrooms?
- B. That is the norm.
- A. But that's not like, a law or anything? (Lee 2000)
- I think a lot has to do with humor, 'cuz like my best best friend, we laugh at the dumbest things... (Lee 2000)
- Guys have feelings, too. But like... who cares? (from a humor website)
- I saw a bunch of fish in the little pond, like, dozens of them, all fighting for the food.
- We used to visit my uncle in Maryland, and this guy was like crazy. I mean, he would like talk to himself and have conversations with himself all the time. And as he got older he got worse, 'cuz he'd like wear women's clothes when no one was around. (Lee 2000)
2.3 (c) Sentence-final like
British English has a sentence-final like which functions as an approximative, equivalent to "so to speak, as it were".
- My wee girl can swim you know – she has her wings like. (Miller & Weinert 1995)
2.4 (d) It's like (like-cleft)
Similar to the focus marker like, this highlights new or important information, and can hedge it at the same time. When used to begin a sentence or clause, it places emphasis on the entire sentence or clause, similar to a regular syntactic cleft structure (emphatic or contrastive sentences with it's in sentences like "It's barbequed pork that I like") (Lee, 2000).
- I wake up, and it's like no one's at home, and I have no idea where anyone is.
2.5 (e) Pseudo-quotative
Finally, there is a common use of like as a reporting expression or quotative, which should be distinguished from the discourse marker. It is used like the colloquial reporting expression go, and thus is not a discourse marker. Since it does not report verbatim thoughts or words, is is properly called a pseudo-quotative. This use of like and go report the gist of what a speaker says or thinks (Romaine & Lange 1991).
- He's goin', blah blah blah, and I'm like, yeah, right.
- Andersen, Gisle. (1998). The Pragmatic Marker like from a Relevance-theoretic Perspective. Andreas H. Jucker, Yael Ziv (eds.), Discourse Markers. Descriptions and theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.
- Andersen, Gisle. (2000). The role of the pragmatic marker like in utterance interpretation. In Gisle Andersen, Thorsten Fretheim (eds.), Pragmatic markers and propositional attitude (pp. 1-22). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.
- Green, Georgia.(2001). Discourse Particles in Natural Language Processing. Unpublished MS, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
- Miller, Jim, and Regina Weinert. (1995). The function of LIKE in dialogue. J. of Pragmatics, 23, 365-393.
- Schourup, Lawrence. (1983). Common Discourse Particles in English Conversation. Working Papers in Ling., Ohio State Univ.
- Underhill, Robert. (1988). Like Is, Like, Focus. American Speech, 63,3, 234-246.
- Lee, Kent A. (2000). 'Like' as a discourse information marker. Talk presented at 14th Pragmatics and Language Learning Conference, Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
- Romaine, Suzanne, & Deborah Lange. (1991). The use of like as a marker of reported speech and thought: A case of grammaticalization in process. American Speech, 66,3, 227-279.