Monthly Archives: July 2014


“Like” has often been described as a filler. It’s a brainless way to fill space in a sentence, we’re told, and that its use as anything other than a comparative or a verb indexes a speaker as stupid or absent-minded. And while I could go on and on about how this interpretation is an arbitrary, prescriptivist point of view and that it has sexist implications, I am instead going to spend this post showing you all the ways in which “like” is actually quite meaningful outside of the standard, English-teacher-approved usage. I’m drawing many of these definitions and descriptions from the introduction to Chris Odato’s dissertation, “Children’s Development of Knowledge and Beliefs about English ‘Like’,”1 which is an interesting read in itself.

It turns out that “like” is in fact not a mindless filler, but instead has grammar and meaning as does every other part of speech. The following are innovative uses of like (not necessarily new, just outside current Standard English usage). Some sources claim that some uses may be over a hundred years old.

Discourse Like

There are two types of discourse “like”:

1. Like, he’s really trying to work on it.
2. It’s, like, a big deal.

The first example is one that occurs before a clause2 (discourse marker like) and the second example illustrates one that occurs within a clause (discourse particle like).

There are two theories for why people use “like” in this way. One argument is that discourse “like” is used as a “focuser”; it signals to the listener that the content of the following phrase is important. It has also been posited that discourse “like” can be a qualifier, meaning that the speaker is not sure about the truth of the content that follows the “like.”

Quotative Like

Quotative like is when we use the verb to be + “like” in place of “he said” or “she did this.”

1. And he was like “whoa!”
2. She was like [does interpretive dance]

This to be + “like” construction can only be used for direct quotes. For example, with the word “said”, you can say “She said that she’s coming,” or “She said ‘I’m coming.’” However, “like” can only be used with the second (direct) quote. So, you can say: “She was like, ‘I’m coming!’” but “She was like she’s coming” would sound pretty weird. Perhaps the fact that “She said ‘I’m coming’” sounds pretty strange outside of the context of written language might have created a need for a quotative that accounts for direct quotes, but I’ll admit that’s largely speculation on my part.

Approximative Like

“Like” is also used for approximating expressions.

1. She was stuck there for, like, three hours.

In this case, “like” is essentially a synonym for “approximately.”

As you can see, there are real, meaningful uses for the word “like” in spoken language.. Many of those uses of “like” in the ad above are not something you’d hear in the real world. For example, “I, like, don’t want, like, people to, like, make fun of, like, me.” In what scenario would you hear someone say “make fun of, like, me?” Think about the way that sounds — would any of your friends legitimately say that? There is no need for a qualifier, because if people were making fun of you, you probably would not be unsure who it is they’re making fun of. And there’s no need for discourse like as a focuser, because you’re highlighting the fact that you get mocked, not that you are mocked as opposed to someone else. And there’s no approximative need — you are not more or less “you.” So not only is the ad insulting; it’s also just wrong. Although the people who made this ad may understand how “like” is used intuitively as native speakers; (many of them probably use it on a regular basis themselves), they manipulate the language and take advantage of its stereotyped role as a “filler” to create an exaggerated caricature of a young woman.


1Unless specifically mentioned, this information all comes from that dissertation.

2A clause is very similar to a sentence. If you can state whether a string of words is true or false, then it’s a clause. For instance, if you say “It’s raining today,” you can say whether that statement is true or false. However, if you say “to the store,” we do not have enough information to be able to say whether it’s true or false.

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Word Crimes

I wanted to do a post on “Word Crimes,” Weird Al’s new prescriptivist anthem based on the song “Blurred Lines.” I then realized that no matter what I said about it, I would not have been as thorough and as eloquent as Ohio State English professor and linguist Lauren Squires. I have copied the text of this post from her guest post on Language Log.

While “grammar nerds” are psyched about Weird Al’s new “Word Crimes” video, many linguists are shaking their heads and feeling a little hopeless about what the public enthusiasm about it represents: a society where largely trivial, largely arbitrary standards of linguistic correctness are heavily privileged, and people feel justified in degrading and attacking those who don’t do things the “correct” way. What’s behind linguists’ reactions are at least three factors.

First, while Weird Al talks about “grammar,” most of his prescriptions do not pertain to what linguists consider the “grammar” of English, and this reflects a widespread divide between the use of the term “grammar” in everyday language and “grammar” by linguists. This divide frustrates linguists, because it makes them feel like everyone misunderstands the very substance and nature of their field of study.

Second, a little rumination on Weird Al’s violent reactions against “bad grammar” raises deep and longstanding questions of social equity regarding class, education, race, age, ethnicity, gender, and how these relate to languages, dialects, and social registers. There is ample research on these issues (which any sociolinguist could point you to), but the upshot is that the notion of “Proper English” typically serves to prop up the already-privileged speakers whose native language variety it is (sort of) based on. This puts speakers whose native language variety does not approximate “Proper English” at an immediate disadvantage in society, the same way that privileging Whiteness puts those who are not White at an immediate disadvantage in society. It is not the linguistic differences themselves that do this (just as it is not the racial/ethnic difference themselves that determine privilege), but the *attitudes* about them. This is why many linguists are having a hard time laughing with Word Crimes: to do so feels like complicity in an ongoing project of linguistic discrimination that intersects with class, race, and other kinds of discrimination.

Third—and the motivation for this post—is that the view of “grammar” as “you must learn the rules or else be ostracized” just makes grammar no fun at all! Studying language—really digging into it, uncovering its remarkably complex yet orderly structure, investigating what makes it different across speakers and communities—is SUPER FUN! Giving people a list of rules of things to do in order to not be criticized is NOT FUN! I want my students to think language is FUN, and to have FUN thinking about language!

So as a teacher, I want to say: Weird Al can think what he wants about language, and you the audience can laugh along or not, depending on your views on language or taste in music or whatever. But please do not mistake the video itself for an educational video. It will not teach students about language. It will not teach students about grammar. I’ve seen many comparisons to Schoolhouse Rock, but would any student who didn’t already know what a “preposition” was leave Weird Al’s video understanding it? No. Rather, on its face, this video teaches people that there is a right way to speak/write, and if you don’t do things that way, you’re a bad person (or a sewer person? or a person with a disability?) who should not breed. Nothing about how language works, or why these “rules” are what they are.

There are certainly valuable linguistic lessons that can be taken from Word Crimes, but not without a teacher encouraging students to think beyond the video itself, to ask questions about the rules Weird Al wants us to abide by. In this spirit, I worked up an off-the-top-of-my-head list of questions for teachers considering using this video in the classroom. I teach college English linguistics classes, so that’s the audience I’m familiar with, but I think these questions could be useful for teachers at any level to think through for themselves and maybe modify for earlier grades, different subjects, etc. Some are questions about language/grammar, while some are discussion questions to spark class conversation about some really important issues. Whether you like these questions or not, I hope that if you do use this video in teaching, you work up your own list of questions, rather than letting the video stand on its own. Have fun!

25 Questions for Teaching with “Word Crimes”

  1. What is the difference between “spelling” and “grammar”?
  2. What is the role of words in grammar?
  3. What is the function of dictionaries in society?
  4. Who makes dictionaries? Why? How do dictionary makers decide what a word means?
  5. What is the difference between “language,” “English,” and “literacy”? How does “literacy” relate to spelling and/or grammar?
  6. Weird Al points out that nouns can be divided into mass nouns (which are typically modified with “less”) and count nouns (which are typically modified with “fewer”). Can you think of other sub-categories of nouns (that is, nouns that behave in different ways from other nouns)?
  7. When someone says “I could care less,” do you interpret it as Weird Al says (that they DO care), or do you understand their intention? If you understand their intention, why would it matter which way they say it? Can you think of other examples when what someone says may be ambiguous, but their meaning is clear from context?
  8. Who decides what is “the right way” to say things?
  9. Why do you/we trust some people, but not others, to decide what is “right”?
  10. Weird Al discusses the difference between “it’s” and “its.” He says people need to use “the right pronoun” in deciding when to use one or the other. Are “it’s” and “its” actually different pronouns, or the same pronouns with different functions? (not as easy as it may seem!)
  11. What is the difference between a “possessive” and a “contraction”? Give more examples of each.
  12. What is a “participle,” and what would it mean for a participle to be “dangling”? Why do writers sometimes want to avoid “dangling participles”?
  13. What is an “Oxford comma”? Some professional editors use the Oxford comma, and others do not. Come up with an argument to support each rule.
  14. Weird Al claims that “B” “C” “R” and “U” are “words not letters.” Do you agree? Can you make an argument that these ARE, indeed, words?
  15. Weird Al says you should NEVER write words using numbers (like “WORD5”). But people DO write words using numbers, sometimes (otherwise Weird Al wouldn’t need to tell them not to!). When do you think people might choose to spell words this way? Are there times when it might be appropriate to do so? Are there times when it would be completely inappropriate to do so? Does the spelling affect how the words convey their meaning?
  16. Weird Al says it’s ok to write words using numbers if you’re 7 years old (or if your name is Prince…you probably don’t get that joke). What do you think is behind his acceptance of spelling this way for children? Do you think 7-year-olds spell this way?
  17. Weird Al mentions “Proper English.” What do you think he means by this term? What does this term mean to you? How do you think you learned the meaning of “Proper English”? Do you think you speak “Proper English” all the time? When do you or don’t you?
  18. Do you use the word “whom”? (advanced: Do a search using an online corpus for “to who” versus “to whom” and see what you find. Is “to whom” in as widespread usage? If not, should we be worried? Why or why not?)
  19. Weird Al makes sentence diagrams! Try to diagram this simple sentence using Weird Al’s system (which are Reed-Kellogg diagrams): “Weird Al hates bad grammar.” What do you think the purpose of sentence diagramming is?
  20. What IS the difference between “good” and “well”? Would you say “I’m doing good” or “I’m doing well”? Why?
  21. Weird Al doesn’t like people “misusing” the terms “literally” and “irony.” Can you think of words that you and your friends use to mean something different than what other people might mean by them?
  22. Weird Al singles out emails and blog posts as places where particular bad grammar resides. What do you think is behind this? Do you think YOUR emails, blog posts, or Facebook posts contain different grammar than your school papers, texts, or spoken conversations?
  23. What do you think the function of emoji are is in online communication? Do you or your friends use them? Where do they usually go in a message (beginning, middle, end)? How does their position relate to their function?
  24. Weird Al seems to think that preschool is where proper grammar education begins. Do you remember learning about grammar in preschool? What are your first memories of learning about grammar? Do you feel satisfied with the amount of formal grammar instruction you have had in school? Why or why not?
  25. Weird Al says some pretty mean things about people who don’t use “proper English.” Where do you think his negative attitudes about such people come from? Do you think he’s justified in his beliefs? Why or why not?
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More Fun Facts About Sign Language

In a previous post, I shared with you some of my favorite fun facts about sign language that I’ve learned as a linguistics major. Some people (okay, my dad) enjoyed that post so much that I thought I’d do a follow-up. Because I’d pretty much exhausted my knowledge about sign language in the first post, I asked someone (a hearing person) fluent in Signed English who is also an American Sign Language (ASL) major to provide me with some more fun facts for your enjoyment.

The Facts:

1. In the previous post, I told you that signed languages are not based on spoken language, and that a shared spoken language is no guarantee that two countries will have mutually intelligible sign language (e.g. the US and the UK). However, there is a dialect of sign language where signers use the same vocabulary as ASL, but use a syntax more like spoken English.
2. In ASL, the alphabet is signed with one hand. But in British Sign Language and German Sign Language, it’s signed using two hands.

ASL Alphabet

American Sign Language alphabet

BSL alphabet

British Sign Language alphabet

3. In ASL and Signed English, all woman-related signs (e.g. girl, wife, daughter) are signed on the lower part of the face, usually by the jawline. All man-related signs (e.g. boy, husband, son) are signed on the upper part of the face, usually by the forehead.

4. Name signs are used to refer to a person without having to fingerspell their entire name. The sign consists of the hand shape of the first letter of the person’s name and the “sign” is something characteristic of that individual. For example, if your name is “Stephanie” and your hair is wavy you could have a name sign consisting of the letter “S” making a curl motion at the bottom of your hair. When meeting a deaf person, it is customary to tell them your name sign, to avoid the cumbersome practice of fingerspelling one’s name for each mention.

5. In some cultures, sign language consists of purely “home signs”. These are signs that people make up to use with their friends or family. Eventually, these signs become part of one’s own dialect, and are incorporated into their sign language.

6. There are five different components that make up a sign. If you change any one of these, you change the meaning of a sign. This system is how linguists can classify signs without having to show their audience a picture or a video of a sign.
a. Handshape – the general shape of the hand as it moves forms the basis of the sign.

Handshapes in ASL

Handshapes in ASL

b. Palm Orientation – the direction the palm is facing can change the meaning of the word. For example, in ASL, the difference between the signs for “good” and “bad” is mainly one of palm orientation

ASL sign for

ASL sign for “bad”

ASL sign for

ASL sign for “good”

c. Location – the same handshape in different locations can mean totally different things (as in the male and female signs discussed above.

d. Movement – one movement of a handshape and two movements of the same handshape can mean different things.

e. Facial Expressions- Your facial expressions define whether you are asking a question or making a statement. For example, furrowing your brows indicates that you are asking a WH question (who, what, why, when, where) and raising your eyebrows indicates that you are asking a yes/no question.

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