A few weeks ago, my mom came to visit campus. In an effort to steer her away from those obvious signs of collegiate debauchery that lie in wait around every corner, poised to spring out at a moment’s notice—a crushed Keystone can in the middle of Marston Quad here, a particularly explicit safer-sex advertisement there (why is it that parents only ever see the “sex” in “safer sex?”)—I decided to distract her with the glamor and sheen of academia. I brought her to my religious ethics class, and she drank up the conversation with all the eagerness of an intellectually curious, middle-aged mother, even throwing a well-articulated point or two of her own into the discursive fray. Afterwards, she raved about the material, the professor, all of my observations (what do you expect? I’m her only child!) and a good deal of what my fellow classmates had to say. The only thing she took issue with, really, was how they had to say it.
“Well it stumbles and it falls off of almost every tongue/Give a listen and you’ll hear/It’s workin’ like a landmine in almost every sentence/It’s an assault to my mind’s ear.” These lyrics (written by her husband, but that’s a minor detail) were almost certainly rattling around in the back of my mother’s head when she voiced her concerns about the parlance patterns of my peers. The word my parents detest beyond all others? That most insidious of prepositions, that simple string of four letters which has come to define a generation of American teenagers:like. Placeholder par excellence, it carries considerably more clout than um or well, yet most who employ it—as well, I would surmise, as a great portion of the desensitized masses—are ignorant of the extent to which it pollutes otherwise well-formed and well-articulated propositions.
My thoughts about the word like are not particularly unique. Essentially, I think there’s a reason it’s used to characterize the air-headed valley girl stereotype (no offense to those who identify along those lines—Woodland Hills represent!). What really gets me, though, is that 5C students, for all their self-satisfied—and, it would seem, generally deserved—coziness toward the top of the academic totem pole, consistently fall prey to the trend.
When I think about it, though, the omnipresence of like among our not-so-humble population makes a lot of sense. In a competitive classroom environment, such a meaningless interjection buys time. Torn between the “speak first, think later” imperative and the bothersome necessity of formulating a coherent thought, I’ve seen many a go-getter budding academic have to resort to gratuitous filler in order to round out what was a half-baked idea in the first place. Few things, it would seem, scare a liberal arts college student in a seminar-style discussion more than silence, especially when it presents itself in the middle of a spoken claim. When students insert a needless like, chances are they’re scrambling for the next clause in an (inevitably brilliant) argument, ashamed of their failure to anticipate the vocal evolution of their own opinions.
Furthermore, like puts a kind of distance between a student and his or her ideas, and this proves particularly attractive for the 5C humanities student who has been taught to value the masquerade of relativity in the classroom. After all, heaven forbid any of us should say something offensive, questionable or just plain wrong! This most versatile of modifiers provides us an out, a back door through which we can escape should our line of argument not pan out according to our original intentions. At the end of the day, we can always fall back on the fact that we never said it was X; we said it was “like” X, which is not really the same at all. “I think” is no longer sufficient to express a tentative proposition regarding a subject, a possible truth-of-the-matter; “I feel like” now reigns at the roundtable.
The obvious problem, of course, is that Deloitte’s not likely to hire a Cher Horowitz-sound-alike to head its IT Department, regardless of how prestigious his or her degree may be. But I think that like exerts an even more pernicious influence on those who live and learn in the cultures it touches. Substantive changes—and though we may have different visions of what form such changes may take, I think the world does need them—require substantive thought, and substantive thought requires solid opinion-formation. That, in turn, calls for a willingness to stop hiding behind prepositional fluff and start owning up to our own ideas, to bravely put forth contributions and to humbly and critically retract or reshape them when necessary, to posit instead of just pre-positing, if you will. It’s a hard habit to break, I know, but precision of language goes a long way toward bolstering clarity of thought and enabling productive communication. If you take the time to separate the wheat from the chaff now, it’ll be a lot easier for you down the line. After all, a gentle maternal suggestion is still welcome at this age. But just wait until you bring a high-powered coworker home for dinner down the line and your mother has reason to bring it up then. That’s, like, seriously embarrassing.