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:He goes on to say
"Like is the preferred expression (rather than 'such as') in this kind of phrase: painters like Rubens."
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.