The latest series of the television show Love Island is over, with Amber and Greg now snuggling up as the most recent winners—at least until the winter version starts in January 2020.
As well as bringing us a fresh group of islanders and a new villa to admire, the January series is likely to throw up many of the same linguistic debates as previous series.
Yes, you read that right—linguistics. For nary a season of Love Island, or any program predominantly aimed at young people, may pass without a flurry of grumpy think pieces on the protagonists’ language habits. And few linguistic habits cause as much ranting from those seeking to protect the fair English tongue as use of the word “like”.
After several decades of “like”-bashing, which long predate Love Island’s arrival on our screens, commentators, principals, and professors all continue to denounce the “excessive” use of the word “like” among “the young”.
But seeking to protect English grammar from “like” is misguided for one crucial reason: “like” has a grammar, too. And by understanding the grammar of “like,” we can learn a lot about what it means and what it contributes to someone’s speech.
Like it or not
To shed light on “like”’s grammar, I’ve built what is known in linguistics as a corpus. A corpus is a representative sample of language as used by certain speakers. We can then examine this corpus to understand how language is used—rather than relying on our perceptions, opinions, and memories.
My corpus is not based on Love Island, but on a program with similarly young participants—and audience members— that has also attracted much criticism for its participants’ language use: the BBC’s makeup competition Glow Up.
After transcribing the show and removing the kinds of “like” that are broadly “accepted”—that is the verbs, nouns, quotatives, and those used for comparisons—I found that participants used “like” 229 times in eight episodes. That’s about 29 uses of “like” per episode, or one every two minutes.
First, it was notable that “like” was rarely either preceded or followed by a pause. So even though this use of “like” is regularly dismissed as a meaningless, lazy filler, it doesn’t, in fact, behave like “um” or “er.” In the program, the participants knew what they wanted to say, and using “like” was part of that.
We can further understand the meaning of “like” by noticing that there are places in an utterance where “like” can appear and places where it sounds really unnatural. According to the Glow Up corpus, here’s where “like” might appear in an utterance such as “I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes”:
Like, I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am like going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going to like create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going to create like a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going to create a like beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going to create a beautiful look in like 15 minutes.
And here are the places where “like” never, or very rarely, appears:
I like am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going like to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going to create a beautiful like look in 15 minutes.
I am going to create a beautiful look like in 15 minutes.
I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 like minutes.
I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes like.
Of course, we can’t assume that this kind of “like” never appears in the positions marked in the second set of examples. But a large scale study of North American English speakers also found that speakers regularly produced utterances like the first set of examples but didn’t produce utterances like the second set, making my finding somewhat stronger.
“Like”, then, can’t just be used anywhere, but it can still appear in about six different places in our example sentence—so what is it doing?
The meaning of like
The corpus shows us that an utterance that starts with “like” always follows on from another utterance. The speaker who starts an utterance with “like” in this way might be adding their support to what someone else has just said, or emphasizing that they really believe something that they have just said themselves. For example:
Dom: This is bloody marvelous. Like this is really beautiful. You have won me over 100%.
Leomie: Nah well done, Nikki. Like the eye, the color, like it proper worked.
“Like” in the middle of an utterance is similar, but subtly different. It may be used to highlight the part of the utterance that’s telling us something new and relevant, or that the speaker thinks is most interesting or important. You might think that this would mean that “like” could highlight any and every part of a sentence but, as we’ve already seen, “like” can highlight certain types of constituents (combinations of words and phrases), but not others.
Ellis: I’m layering up the powder to kind of get, like, this velvety finish
Stacey: Is Ellis putting, like, a glue stick on his eyebrows?
In both cases, then, speakers use “like” to make sure that their message is properly understood by the person they’re speaking to, both in terms of its content and how it fits into the conversation.
We can make an analogy between “like” and how intonation is used in English. We could remove it from an utterance and that utterance would still be grammatical, but it wouldn’t convey its message in the same way. It could also sound really odd in the context of a conversation.
English speakers use and interpret both “like” and intonation without thinking about it consciously. Intonation has also been a target for language commentators who decry, for example, “uptalk”, when a speaker uses rising intonation at the end of their utterance.
But why do “like” and uptalk annoy people so much? Alexandra D’Arcy at the University of Victoria in Canada argues that the multi-purpose nature of “like” might be part of its downfall. Because all of the uses of “like” are pronounced in the same way, its apparent repetition makes it stand out.
More generally, though, these language gripes just seem to be a proxy for demeaning certain groups that share characteristics other than their (perceived) language use—they tend to be young, female, and not in positions of power.
If we criticize a person or group based on how we think they speak, we not only draw attention away from what they’re saying, but we’re likely to stop them from wanting to speak (up) at all. Language prejudice is real and needs to be called out.