It's, like, not right that way

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Here’s a weird quirk a lot of copy editors have: They change “like” to “such as” anytime it’s used to mean “for instance.” Here’s a for-instance: “Joe loves watching old movies like ‘Vertigo’ and ‘The Birds.’”

Most editors I know would reflexively change that “like” to “such as” before sending the article to the copy editor, me. Then I stare at the sentence for 10 minutes wondering whether I can get away with changing it back.

These editors are laboring under a false belief about “like” and “such as.” The putative difference, which I’ve always attributed to editing style guides like the AP Stylebook, is that “like” means “similar to,” not “such as.” If you say that Joe watches old movies like “Vertigo,” you’re saying, supposedly, that “Vertigo” is not one of the movies he watches -- that he enjoys movies similar to “Vertigo” but “Vertigo” is not one of them.

I’m pretty aggressive with my red pen. If I think an editor above me in the food chain made a bad edit, I change it back. I check my facts first, of course. And my position on “like” is easily proven: Dictionaries agree that “like” can mean “such as.” So I’m right to undo the unnecessary edit if I see fit.

But I hesitate because when you’re following in a certain style, its guidelines override other authorities, including the dictionary. If you’re editing in AP style and AP says “like” can’t mean “such as,” that’s a weighty consideration, to say the least. But when strict adherence to a style rule makes the sentence worse, a copy editor can feel conflicted.

So imagine my surprise when, in preparation for this column, I checked my 2015 AP Stylebook and saw there was no such rule. Maybe AP changed it recently? I dug up my 2013 edition to find out. Nope. Not in there. I checked editions from 2004 and even 1993. They contain not a word instructing editors to eschew “like” in the meaning “such as.”

Weird. Why, I wondered, are so many newspaper editors married to this rule? I tried a Google search. The top hits stressing the importance of keeping “like” and “such as” separate were all talking about the Graduate Management Admissions Test. To get the question right on the GMAT, these sites unanimously warn, you must know that “like” cannot mean “such as.”

“‘Like’ implies comparison. ‘Such as’ implies inclusion,” one GMAT discussion board explains.

If they’re right, it means that a student who knows more than the test writers will suffer for it. Not cool.

This isn’t the only controversy about “like.” There’s also the question of whether it can mean not “such as” but just “as.” A famous example deals with a cigarette slogan asserting that the brand “tastes good like a cigarette should.” That’s wrong, some observers say, because “like” is a preposition and prepositions introduce nouns, not whole clauses. “A cigarette should” is a whole clause, subject plus verb, so it needs to be introduced by a conjunction, for example “as.”

That would be right if “like” were exclusively a preposition. It’s not. It can be any of several different parts of speech, depending on what it’s doing in the sentence. The cigarette ad’s grammar was OK.

There’s even a third issue involving “like,” shown in these examples. “Kelly was like, ‘Be quiet, you guys!’ And I was like, ‘No way!’”

This famously abrasive usage substitutes “to be like” for “to say.” I used to field a lot of complaints about it. But I don’t anymore. I suppose folks who dislike it have just given up.

That’s interesting, because out of all the contested uses of “like,” this one is the toughest to defend and, without a doubt, the hardest to like.

– June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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