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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Kilpatrick is, like, an ignoramous

The Conservative curmudgeon, James Kilpatrick, has declared that use of "like" rather than "such as" in drawing comparisons is wrong and has taken the New York Times to task not just for using it but adding it to its style manual. Kilpatrick writes:

The Times modestly identifies its Manual of Style and Usage as "the Official Style Guide Used by the Writers and Editors of the World's Most Authoritative Newspaper." On page 190, we find this piece of misguided guidance:

"Like is the preferred expression (rather than 'such as') in this kind of phrase: painters like Rubens."
He goes on to say
The problem lies in the many functions of "like." It may be dragooned into service as a verb: They like baseball. It is a noun: We shall not see his like again. It is an adjective: The team buys suits of like design. It has been a preposition since the 13th century: Her room is like a pigsty. It is a teenager's all-purpose adverb: She is, like, gorgeous. Finally, and thoughtlessly, as the Times recommends, it may be misused as a conjunction: "He carried a bag like a doctor carries." Aaargh!
Interestingly, Dictionary.com notes that the "conjunction" use of "like," as in "To dance like she does requires great discipline" has been around for quite a long time itself. It says
Writers since Chaucer's time have used like as a conjunction, but 19th-century and 20th-century critics have been so vehement in their condemnations of this usage that a writer who uses the construction in formal style risks being accused of illiteracy or worse.

Kilpatrick's only argument against the New York Time's stylistic choice seems to be that "like" has too many functions for this one to be accepted. The problem with this nonsequitur of an argument is that many words have a multiplicity of functions. "Consider the verb, "be." Not that it is any great lexicographic authority but Dictionary.com gives "be" 19 entries. Alors! The otherwise harmless word "to" gets ten entries. Surely this cannot be tolerated. Actually, what cannot be tolerated is pathetic arguments like (such as) the one given by Kilpatrick. The claim that such and such use of a word is objectionable because it increases the number of uses has no legitimacy either as a linguistic or stylistic principle.

Kilpatrick seems to like the preposition use of "like," as in his example, "Her room is like a pigsty." But wait a damn minute! "Like is not a preposition in this case. Notice that one can say, "Her room is quite like a pigsty" or "Her room is somewhat like a pigsty." That suggests that "like" is more like an adjective than a preposition for adjectives can and prepositions cannot be modified by "quite" and "somewhat" (cf. "He is quite/somewhat happy" and "*He is quite/somewhat in the room" -- we linguists use "*" to mark deviant forms.) (Please understand that in marking a form as deviant I do not mean to say poets and people trying to be clever might not use it to good effect.) Moreover, it can be paraphrased by the adjectival form "similar to" as in "Her room is similar to a pigsty." Are we going to take guidance on language from a man who cannot distinguish an adjective from a preposition? I suggest not."

It is hard to distinguish the adjectival use of "like" just discussed from the so-called conjunction use Kilpatrick disdains, namely that found in "He carried a bag like a doctor carries." This sentence can be parsed along the lines of "He carried a bag which is like/similar to that which a doctor carries." In short, the so-called conjunction use is actually adjectival in nature.

Kilpatrick is taking the most superficial possible view of linguistic form for he take what he sees at face value. That is probably because he has no linguistic analytical skills whatever despite his long interest in language.

The semantic analysis of many types of constructions will be quite complex. Notice, for instance, how much more complex the construction "He carried a bag which is like that which a doctor carries" is than the construction "He carried a bag like a doctor carries." They communicate the same thing, which is to say that the odds are that the semantic analysis of the latter will be as complex as that of the former.

Linguistic forms come at us at blazing speed in many types of contexts and to understand them we must very rapidly process them. One way that is facilitated is to reduce complex forms to forms that are simpler, which usually means "shorter." This is the origin of the so-called "preposition" use Kilpatrick likes and the so-called "conjunction" use he dislikes. Both are adjectival in origin. To object to the New York Times styllistic choice is silly. Moreover, one would think that the fact that the so-called "conjunction" use of "like" has been around since the time of Chaucer would clinch the case for a linguistic conservative like Kilpatrick for it is even older than he is.



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5 Comments:

Anonymous Richard Hershberger said...

I am always bemused by people who are shocked by a word being used as various parts of speech ("Verbing weirds the language.") I have to wonder if these people have ever actually looked in a dictionary, or have given the English language a moments thought prior to opining on it. Such complaints are reliable markers of ignorance.

10:11 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What astonishes me here is that the specific example he criticizes - "painters like Rubens" - is completely unobjectionable even from traditionalist standards. It's a prepositional use of "like" not a conjunctional use; it's much more similar to "Her room is like a pigsty" than "a bag like a doctor carries." So even if his argument were valid, it would not argue against the very example he is trying to condemn.

—AJD

11:55 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What astonishes me here is that the specific example he criticizes - "painters like Rubens" - is completely unobjectionable even from traditionalist standards. It's a prepositional use of "like" not a conjunctional use; it's much more similar to "Her room is like a pigsty" than "a bag like a doctor carries." So even if his argument were valid, it would not argue against the very example he is trying to condemn.

—AJD

11:57 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Very nice point. In fact, these superficial characterizations of linguistic form make it very difficult to decide whether a given word in a specific sentence is a "this" or is a "that," which is one of the reasons, I think, that kids have hated learning traditional grammar over the years. Within a modern, theoretical linguistic framework what parts of speech are countenanced and what part of speech a specific word will be assigned reflects the requirement of consistency within the overall grammar of the language and the syntactic and morphological theory underlying the grammar. This is a vague characterization, I know, but I think I can clarify it a bit. As syntactic and morphological theory began to settle down in the '70s, we developed "tests" for membership in a given class. So, modification by "very" iand other degree expressions ("somewhat" or "quite" or "five feet" as in "five feet tall") is a characteristic of adjectives. And, they typically can be compared, as in "taller." They normally can modify nouns. And so on. By saying that Kilpatrick has no analytical skills as a linguist I mean he seems not to understand that these sorts of "tests" are required to make a claim of membership of a word in a class. What "tests" are valid or invalid reflect the the theory of syntax and morphology one adopts and, crucially, is not independent of these choices and not independent of the sentence a word or phrase occurs in. Kilpatrick and others like him seem to think that there are grammar and theory independent characterizations of parts of speech. That is simply false.

6:25 AM

 
Blogger alandavidpritchard said...

Interestingly, nobody has mentioned that the word "like" can also introduce an adverbial phrase or clause, as in "She walks like a person possessed."

9:53 AM

 

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