Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wednesday Writing Tips: What's Not to Like About Like?

By copy editor Susan Greene

What's not to like about like?

Some authors use it like crazy, while others treat it like it's taboo.

For those of you paying enough attention to know I misused the word like in the second half of the previous sentence, I'm so glad you noticed. You may go now.

For those of you who didn't, read on for a short lesson in the proper use of like versus as if.

Like is a versatile little word that can be used as a noun, a verb, an adverb, a preposition, an adjective and even as an interjection. (Like, what are you saying here, Susan?)

We're going to concentrate on the use—or rather the misuse—of like as a conjunction. While it's acceptable in colloquial speech to use like in this manner, in the written word it's simply bad grammar.

"The dog barked like she had no sense."

What's wrong with that? Well, if it was in dialogue, I'd say nothing is wrong. In character dialogue, many grammatical slipups can be ignored, since that's how people speak. But in narration, the sentence should read: "The dog barked as if she had no sense." (I'm pretty certain my dog doesn't.)

"As if  I'll remember that," you might say. Well, think of that particular “valley girl” phrase whenever you're tempted to use like.

Here's another example: "She grinned like a Cheshire cat." In this sentence, there is no verb after the word like, only a subject. This is a simile. Like is always used with a simile—a comparison of one thing to another. This includes similes containing participle phrases. "She grinned like a cat licking milk from its whiskers." That is correct. Why? Because the word licking, while it does show action, is not a verb in this case. It is part of an adjective (modifying) clause describing (or modifying) the cat.

"She ran like her life depended on it." In this sentence, like is incorrect. Why, you ask? Because "her life depended on it" is an independent clause containing a subject and a verb that could stand alone as a separate sentence, where "a cat licking milk from its whiskers" is not. "She ran as if her life depended on it." Subject—life; verb—depended. Make sense?

So get in touch with your inner "valley girl". If the second clause in a sentence is an independent clause that could stand alone as a sentence, containing both a SUBJECT and a VERB, replace like with as if. (Or as though. They’re interchangeable.)

Believe me, to your editors, it will be like a dream come true!

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