Saturday, November 24, 2007

Such as a rolling stone

As hobbies go, I suppose, being a Language Expert must not be all that harmful. But it does have a couple of down sides, as Jack ("at least I'm not Safire") Kilpatrick demonstrates for us here. One, people might take you seriously, even if you're spouting complete nonsense. Two, whenever editors concentrate on nonissues, they're almost certain to be missing genuinely serious issues in the prose they're trying to help. Raise your hand if you've heard this fight on your copydesk before:

What not to like about 'like'
It's no substitute for 'such as,' no matter what Merriam-Webster says
In The New York Times, the greatly gifted Gail Collins ducked away from a tough topic: "I would love to give you all the arguments about the virtues of the Law of the Sea Treaty, but it seems like a cruel thing to do."

Three weeks ago another Times writer, Carol Vogel, covered an auction of high-priced paintings. They were the work of "masters like Matisse, Signac and Pissarro."

In Time magazine, reporter Bill Saporito wrote about Wal-Mart: Most of its worst-performing stores were located "in big coastal cities like Boston and Los Angeles."

See if you can guess what four-letter word he's going to complain about!

Like, like, like! Properly employed, it's a lovable little word. The compliant Polonius saw a cloud "like" a weasel. Hamlet mourned his father: "I shall not look upon his like again." Martial confessed an irrational prejudice: "I do not like you, Sabidius!" Whether as noun, verb, adjective, adverb or preposition, "like" functions like a good Scout knife. (Hold this thought. We're about to see it again.) We may use it anywhere.

It's as a conjunction that "like" is most widely abused. (Which accounts for exactly none of the cases Kilpatrick cites.) Nine times out of 10, "such as" would better serve a writer's purpose. (In two of the cases at hand, it'd be acceptable; in the first -- "it seems such as a cruel thing to do" -- it would be as wrong as you can get.) In the Horrid Examples just cited, we're not learning about masters like Matisse or cities like Boston. (Speak for yourself, bubba.) "Like" doesn't work well in these constructions because the first, immediate understanding of "like" in context is as a comparative: Scott's love was "like a red, red rose." John Dos Passos wrote of "frail clouds like milkweed floss." The Yankees are like the Red Sox, only of course they weren't.

Let's stop the tape and untangle some of the facts, superstitions and biases in play here. One, Kilpo's correct(ish) to suggest that "like" is "most widely abused" as a conjunction. That's certainly the usage that gets the most complaints and (in cases like this, from today's Freep) look and sound the worst:

People flocked into the museum like it was a shopping mall with the best Black Friday deals in town.

Now that, Brother Kilpo, is a Horrid Example of "like" trying to coordinate two independent clauses. You're welcome to dislike it. I do too, and I'd agree that it's the site of the biggest battles -- which arise because the construction has been used not just by Huck Finn ("Seemed like I'd die if I couldn't scratch") but by Sir Winnie ("We are overrun by them, like the Australians were by rabbits") and quite a few others between and after, as the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage tells us. It's ugly, but it's "indisputably used widely in standard English prose" -- and the worst damage it does is probably from forcing people into preposterous hypercorrections, like "beaches do not naturally smell as rotten eggs."

That "like" is the one Kilpo is after, though it's among the usages that he says are fine. What is doing in "like 'beaches do not naturally smell as rotten eggs'"? Well, it could be an adjective. It could be a preposition (still known as an adj by "conservative grammarians," as Webster notes). It could be what the OED calls a "quasi-preposition." All are in bounds, but he's going after a whole different argument, on which opinion is even less settled than the "Winston tastes good" conjunction: Whether "like" is used for resemblance or for examples. Does "outfielders like Yastrzemski" mean others (but not Yaz) in a category of high-power, high-average lefthanded hitters who play the Monster well, or does it mean Yaz and others like him?

On the evidence (again, flip open your MWCDEU and see for yourself), it can mean both. And it's perfectly unexceptional either way. There's no chance of confusion, and no rational reader or speaker should insist that one is the more "exact" or "precise" meaning. Kilpo's welcome to prefer "such as" as a direct substitute, but you'll note he doesn't take himself literally:

A Washington Post stringer offered a splendid example a few weeks ago. She wrote of Democratic electoral victories "in such places as Arlington County and Alexandria." Not "places like"! Places "such as"!

No, she doesn't say "places such as." She says "such places as." You can't tell from this whether she's a good writer or not, but you can get an idea that she isn't a hypercorrecting goofbag. And those of us who have written an accurate "like" only to see it changed to "such as," or a "but" that turns into a "however," appreciate the difference.

OK, once again, Kilpo isn't Safire. He isn't coyly referring to himself in the third person, and he isn't fabricating data to serve the ends of his political allies. His first example is flatly ludicrous, and his second two can be tracked down under the OED's adj A1c: "introducing a particular example of a class respecting which something is predicated," but he's entitled to a good old prescriptivist whinge. What's so wrong with that?

Nothing, unless you take it too seriously -- meaning if you get so absorbed in non-problems that you're distracted when real ones go roaring by. And if you work in the news business, kiddies, serious problems are presenting themselves in their dozens every shift.

Were you arguing about an adjectival or quasi-prepositional "like" when this writer double-clutched in the 1A lede?

Despite putting up with freezing cold temperatures and people who tried to take cuts, they got what they came for 22 hours later: a laptop computer for $229. (Despite being patient, they got what they came for?)

Were you so caught up in debating conjunctive "like" that you forgot about the ways real coordinating conjunctions work?

Knowing no English, she came to Detroit in 1958 from the Italian village of Gagliano Aterno but was to reunite with her husband, Carmine, whom she had not seen for four years. (Carmine! Fancy meeting you here!)

Were you so convinced grammar is actually a form of magic that you thought the subject of one clause could supernaturally leap the terminal punctuation into another?

David Morrow, co-chairman of the Riverwalk Neighborhood Association, which adjoins the drag-strip site, said he's pleased Smith has decided to stay in the area. Keeping the speedway will be good for homeowners. (So much for keeping your opinion out of the news columns, eh?)

We could go on. Some mistakes are understandable. Mistakes that come about because you've been head-faked into chasing after ghosts are much less so.



Blogger Mr. Verb said...

Nice post, and I'm glad you wrote about this ... I saw the piece and just couldn't bring myself to touch it. Thanks!

Mr. V

11:26 AM, November 26, 2007  
Blogger Doug Fisher said...

And as almost a little footnote to its extensive "like" entry, the Times' Manual on Style and Usage has this line:
"Like is the preferred expression (rather than such as) in this kine of phrase: painters like Rubens.

And under "such as":
"In introducing an example, this phrase is stilted and should usually be replaced by like."

So would seem the writers were merely following their house style. Would we ask any less?

4:41 PM, November 26, 2007  
Blogger terrycollmann said...

The Times of London disagrees - I quote from its style guide:

"like: do not use as a synonym of such as (eg, say “cities such as Manchester are ambitious”, not “cities like Manchester ... ”); nor as a synonym of as if (eg, say “he looks as if he is succeeding”, not “he looks like he is succeeding”)

I agree with almost everything you say about Mr K's comments, but I'd argue that in the Venn diagram of meaning, 'like' and 'such as' do not completely overlap, and it would be useful to try to preserve the distinction that 'like' can mean 'similar to but not necessarily including'.

4:20 PM, November 28, 2007  

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