And I’m like, Quotative ‘like’ isn’t just for quoting

A few tweets from earlier today, to introduce and summarise the topic:

[An interesting discussion ensued that I’ll assemble on Storify later. Update: Here’s the Storify chat.]

One of the most noticeable changes in modern everyday English usage is the ascent of like in its various guises. Last week Michael Rundell at Macmillan Dictionary Blog briefly surveyed the development, noting that the word’s relatively recent use in reporting direct speech – known as quotative like – is “widely disliked by traditionalists”.

There are various reasons for the aversion. Any usage that becomes suddenly popular will attract criticism. Frequent use of like is also perceived as lazy, or associated with triviality. Facebook likes, filler likes (So, like, OK), and hedging or approximating likes (He was like six feet) serve only to underline how ubiquitous the word has become.

Some, like the Acadamy of Linguistic Awarness [sic], revile this state of affairs:

Acadamy of Linguistic Awarness - Don't sound stupid, stop saying like - poster

Others take pride in it:

Valley girl and like proud - t-shirt

Like is like soooo divisive, and quotative like is often misunderstood. If you search online for hate the word like or some such string, you’ll find plenty of knee-jerk antipathy to it that largely assumes its synonymity with said. That is, there’s a common misconception that I was like, [X] = I said, [X]. But often this is not the case, about which more shortly.

First, it’s worth noting that those of us who use quotative like use it in a range of tenses, for example past (She was like, “Let me know”), historical present (So last week he’s like, “Are we ready yet?” and we’re all like, “Yes!”), and future (If that happens I’ll be like, “Uh-oh.”).

This use of like, reporting direct speech more or less, became very popular in recent times with young people especially, though far from exclusively, establishing itself as a normal usage – even a dominant one in some groups. But with quotative like we can do more than simply report speech: we may convey an interaction with expansive social and performative detail.

As Jessica Love observed in the American Scholar a couple of years ago, quotative like

encourages a speaker to embody the participants in a conversation. Thus, the speaker vocalizes the contents of participants’ utterances, but also her attitudes toward those utterances. She can dramatize multiple viewpoints, one after another, making it perfectly clear all the while which views she sympathizes with and which she does not.

Quotative like has also undergone striking developments on the internet, as tweet no. 3 above revealed. Some users of social media are typing I’m like (or I’m all like, etc.) and following it with an image or image macro. It’s a meme-friendly playground of creativity in which the images themselves are being embedded in the syntax.

Here are some examples with text:

College is around the corner and I'm like [bring it on life]

Comforting friends when they're upset. I'm all like [brush]

And I'm like how about [NO]

And some without text:

Everyone's hungover and I'm like [Julie Andrews]

It's Monday again and I'm like [wet cat]

So many people flirting on the TL and I'm like [hand to window]

When my phone loses service I'm all like

Everyone's talking about driving and I'm just like [kid's bike]

Offline we might say I’m like and make a caricatured facial expression; online, we use images instead to communicate those staged reactions. These funny, often self-deprecating tweets use instantly interpretable images to substitute for (and expand upon) those physical gestures, expressions, and body language that accompany ordinary speech but are difficult or impossible to replicate online.

Last month the NY Times quoted Robin Kelsey, a professor of photography at Harvard, who believes

This is a watershed time where we are moving away from photography as a way of recording and storing a past moment . . . [and] turning photography into a communication medium.

And not just photography but image macros, TV and film stills, comics, animated gifs, the whole gamut of shortform visual data we’ve been incorporating into online discourse. (Jessica Love has also pondered the possibilities of a language based on real-time images.) Who’s to say what will emerge from this hybrid domain?

Quotative like can set up a whole miniature drama, with visual content contributing to a richer vocabulary than words alone could license. Online and off, used with images or micro-performances, quotative like is not a lazy crutch of semi-literate teens but a handy and highly functional addition to our lexicon – and to our paralinguistic repertoire. No wonder it has caught on.

And I’m all like

Special Agent Dale Cooper - thumbs up - Twin Peaks


In ‘The Internet is a James Joyce Novel‘, Jessica Love at the American Scholar picks up on this post and ponders the spread of captioned images qua memes and their communicative uses:

[L]ike it or not, memes are playing an increasingly prominent role in public discourse. . . . The increasing ease with which we can combine language and pictures will only lead to further innovations.

From an excellent post by Arnold Zwicky on Language Log, December 2006:

[T]eenagers have been fond of discourse-particle uses of like for quite some time, at least 50 years; some people now in their 50s and 60s still use like this way. Meanwhile, quotative like has risen in 25 or 30 years to become the dominant quotative in the speech of young people (and some older speakers use it too). The result is that some young people are indeed heavy users of like in functions that some of their elders do not use it in. And many of these older speakers are annoyed as hell about that.

Zwicky further explores the sociolinguistic aspects of like, confirming its usefulness and examining why exactly some people dislike it so much. He finds that:

discourse-particle and quotative like have both linguistic value (they can be used to convey nuances of meaning) and social value (they’re part of the way personas and social-group memberships are projected).

Steven Poole reminded me of his post at Unspeak a few years ago taking Christopher Hitchens to task for a shallow denigration of quotative like:

he was like and he said do not actually mean the same thing; and Hitchens is like, I do not approve of this youthspeak that I have not made sufficient efforts to understand?

Mercedes Durham informed me of research she and colleagues did on the “Constant linguistic effects in the diffusion of ‘be like’” (PDF).

They report on two studies of “change in social and linguistic effects on be like usage and acceptability”, and find “no evidence of change in linguistic constraints on be like [e.g., speaker age, tense, quote content] as it has diffused into U.K. and U.S. Englishes”.


53 Responses to And I’m like, Quotative ‘like’ isn’t just for quoting

  1. Kory Stamper says:

    In one of my presentations this year, I talked about the quotative “like” (and the discourse particle “like”). When I said that the quotative “like” is about 30 years old–and probably older–a few people booed. These poor souls: I had not yet dropped the bomb that the discourse particle “like” went back to at least the 1940s.

    And I was all like, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  2. Stan says:

    Kory: People booed the longevity of quotative like?! Oh dear. But I expect you enticed a few of them over from the dark side with your presentation.

    Alan: Me too. (Is that a Cork like, like?)

    And thanks, Barrie.

  3. limr says:

    I definitely use ‘like’ in everyday discourse, but as with anything, when it’s overused, it becomes distracting. I had a student once who fit every stereotype of ‘like’ users: young, female, popular, named Brittney (and yes, it was said and spelled Britt-ney, not Brittany). I secretly tracked her ‘like’ use. 18 times in 30 seconds.

    What I also find interesting is when the ‘like’ is dropped and it becomes simply, “And he was all ‘I wanna break up” and I was all…whaaaaaaaaat?”

  4. John Cowan says:

    Limr, that’s the point I was about to make when I read your admirable evidence: quotative like is in my opinion really quotative be. Thus, “I was like X” alternates with “I was all X” and even simply “I was X”, especially when there are a lot of conversational lines to report one after the other.

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:

    With a shade of situational irony, opining from here in the very heart of the currently steamy San Fernando Valley, less than a couple of miles from the legendary Sherman Oaks Galleria, the circa-1970’s ‘epicenter’ of nascent ‘Valley Girl Speak’, like… I just couldn’t resist bringing up that other annoying favored Valley girl conversational speech idiom; namely, “Then he goes…”, or “Then she goes…”; essentially used by the speaker to repeat, or quote as faithfully as possible, back-and-forth dialogue, a regurgitated running commentary if you will, of an earlier experienced conversation.

    For me, this “he goes… she goes” has a similar conversational function as the “quotative like”, but with perhaps a nuanced difference… although both are equally, like so painfully annoying to most, except to those who like happen to favor these lazy modes of descriptive, or explanatory discourse.

    Like who am I to judge?

    By-the-by… like is that actor Kyle MacLachlan giving the sheepish thumbs up in that last photo (above)? Judging from the muted knotty pine panelling and the blur of a painting of that bucolic snowy wilderness mountain scene in the background*, I’d say we’re looking at MacLachlan in his career-defining “Twin Peaks” sleuthing inspector/ agent role, just prior to evil specter “Bob” (or Biff?) making his creepy presence felt… for sure.

    Like where’s that dang Log Lady when we need her?

    *Hmm… don’t know if that wooden object in the background to Kyle’s left is Sasquatch’s missing snowshoe, or like Sarah Palin’s ladder-to-nowhere.

  6. Barrie says:

    Someone has reminded me of the use of ‘like’ as a tag question (‘You know what I mean, like?’). It doesn’t appear to atract the same hostility.

  7. Stan says:

    Leonore, John: Sometimes I’ve been distracted by it too, especially in cases of extreme overuse, such as the one you describe, Leonore. I’ve seen it called quotative ‘be like’ as well, with either of the second two words parenthesised, and of course you’re right: be is the essential element. Except when it’s quotative go, but I suppose that’s best treated as a related but distinct idiom. Have linguists agreed upon the terminology? I may adjust the post accordingly to avoid misleading.

    Alex: Good point about quotative go, which I neglected to mention in the post. Arnold Zwicky has a short note on its history at Language Log. The perception that these constructions are lazy seems quite prevalent, but I don’t consider them so.

    Barrie: Not so much, though I’m sure there are some who object to it as superfluous. In Ireland the use of like as a sentence-ending tag (not necessarily in a question) is associated strongly with county Cork. I recall a Facebook group dedicated to the Cork “like”, and there’s a film project underway at the moment called simply “Cork, Like”.

  8. […] And I’m like, Quotative ‘like’ isn’t just for quoting […]

  9. maestrojon says:

    I did some life history interviews as part of my PhD using the biographical narrative interpretive method (BNIM), the core aim of which is to look for PINS, particular incident narratives – ‘so, we were there, he said x, I said y’ etc – which are said to be a route to the ‘situated subjectivity’ of the participant. One young Irish guy in particular gave an exceptionally detailed narrative interview via the liberal use of the quotative ‘like’ which, just as you say, allowed him to (almost) perform stories and events from his life in exquisite, expressive detail.  From a narrative perspective, his interview was very much enriched because of the use of ‘like’.  It helped him tell great stories.  I was converted!  I am editing the (accursed) thesis at the moment so I might cite this post to help explain my conversion.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @maestrojon… with your cogent and interestingly reported interview w/ that young irish fellow, I must say you may have picked up another “quotative like” convert here. Thanks for this personal anecdote.

      As blogmeister Stan pointed out earlier (and you’ve more or less substantiated), the use of the “quotative like”, or “go”, for that matter, may not necessarily be a reflection of laziness on the speakers’ part; but functions more as establishing an expedient, or most comfortable mode, or rhythm of expressing ones thoughts; or perhaps relating others’ conversational back-and-forth exchanges. (I’m slowly learning here. HA!)

      I was curious as to your view on the seemingly prevalent use of the word “so”, almost automatically employed, in particular, by scientists, academics-in-general, think-tankers, and many journalists, usually as a responding sentence ‘opener’ in attempting to answer questions posed by the on-air interviewer?

      “So… this is what I’m driving at.” might be an example.

      For me, it almost reaches the level of a communications quirk. As an inveterate listener to our National Public Radio (NPR) and a bit of an all-round media junkie, it almost seems that this leading with the word “so” as a response mechanism, has become the standard for ‘elevated’ media interview discourse.

      Perhaps my slightly negative reaction to the overuse of the ‘intro-word-so’ is quirky, in this regard, and I’m the one that’s out-of-step in my response here?

      What say you?

  10. Stan says:

    Jonathan: That sounds like really interesting research. And as you say, the Irish participant’s use of be like opened up modes of expression that wouldn’t have been directly available through more traditional terms such as said, since they’re restricted to reporting speech.

    I think it’s natural that people react against the usage, even when they use it themselves. A couple of people told me they resist it or feel bad about it while at the same time being unable to stop using it. It seemed to insinuate itself into majority usage (at least in some populations) at a radical rate. But once we acknowledge how remarkably useful it is, we’re more likely to make peace with it.

    Best of luck with the thesis, and feel free to cite me!

  11. Sharon Purvis says:

    One use that’s not really covered here is when a person is relating a conversation and includes thoughts and attitudes that were not actually expressed but are still included in the relating of the story. As in:
    “The professor told me that since I was 5 minutes late, I couldn’t take the exam and would have to take an F, and I was like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?'”
    I have been known to use it that way (I’m 46), and I have a close friend who is almost 60, and she never seems to get that it’s not something I actually said. When I use it that way in conversation, she’ll invariably express surprise that I actually said that, and I have to explain that no, it’s what I WANTED to say, but no, I didn’t actually say that.

    • Stan says:

      Sharon: That’s a good point, and one I overlooked in the post. The research paper “Constant linguistic effects in the diffusion of ‘be like’” (PDF), which I’ve linked to in an update at the foot of the post, describes the contrast between reported thought and direct speech in the use of be like, and I love your example of this difference. Thanks for bringing it up.

      • Gene in L.A. says:

        I have to wonder; if such usage carries the possibility of confusing rather than communicating with the hearer, what good is it? Yes, I’m 74, so maybe I’m just part of Arthur Clark’s older generation in Childhood’s End, watching youth fly away from the Earth because they’ve become a new species. All this seems to me in part a new way of communicating.

        • Gene in L.A. says:

          SORRY! I didn’t notice this is an 8-year-old conversation.

        • Stan Carey says:

          I think the possibility of confusion is low in most circumstances – that mutual familiarity, custom, context, and pragmatic cues would convey the difference between what’s specifically said and what may be felt but not spoken. If quotative like were prone to frequent misinterpretation, it simply would not have spread so much. Yes, it’s a new way of communicating, but not a radically new way, and it remains rule-governed.

          • Gene in L.A. says:

            Thanks for your reply! I suppose on reflection my objection to the quotative “like,” as well as to the same use of “go”, is more habit than continuing objection. I would like to compliment you on the clarity of your explication in this thread; it’s been helpful!

          • Stan Carey says:

            You’re welcome, Gene! Thank you for visiting, and for reviving this discussion.

  12. Carolyn says:

    I heard Billy Collins give a reading at Harvard perhaps fifteen years ago. He quoted, with considerable pleasure, a haiku he had overheard as he crossed a college campus:
    “When he found out, he
    was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and I
    was like, ‘Oh my God!’ “

  13. […] 7. And I’m Like, Quotative ‘Like’ Isn’t Just For Quoting […]

  14. Alon says:

    the speaker vocalizes the contents of participants’ utterances, but also her attitudes toward those utterances. She can dramatize multiple viewpoints, one after another, making it perfectly clear all the while which views she sympathizes with and which she does not.

    Which is actually a quite common phenomenon in conversational performance. Jones and Schieffelin (2009) explicitly refer to some fascinating work by Charles Goodwinand colleagues on how speakers use multimodal cues to indicate which viewpoint they are enacting at the time.

    • Stan says:

      Alon: Very interesting, thank you. From the Abstract of the article, titled ‘Enquoting voices, accomplishing talk: Uses of be + like in Instant Messaging’:

      The spread of be + like from speech, where it was already pervasive, into IM correspondence gives a quotative format once thought exclusively oral new purchase in written language and heralds new strategies of voice representation within a typewritten medium ostensibly limited in its expressive potential. We present this development as evidence of a speech community that recognizes specific quotative forms and functions as constitutive of a preferential conversational style we term ‘polyphonic’, which foregrounds morally and affectively charged voicings.

  15. […] And I’m like, Quotative ‘like’ isn’t just for quoting […]

  16. kitchenmudge says:

    I wrote about all I have to say about “go, be like, be all” last year here:

  17. I saw this Yoplait commercial recently and thought of your “Quotative Like” post:

    I’m not anti-quotative-like, but I still found this commercial annoying.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks, Panikido. I think Yoplait’s use of quotative like in this ad sounds forced and self-conscious, so it’s a bit distracting in a way the company mightn’t have intended.

  18. The word like is the most overused word in the English language now. The idiots who use it all the time have no clue as to how idiotic and uneducated they sound. I had a better vocabulary when I was 12 years old(I’m 60 now). It’ a verb, for crying out loud!

    • Stan says:

      It’s also a noun, preposition, conjunction, adjective, adverb, and suffix. How infuriating!

    • PeteK says:

      Can’t agree more with you, James. I work with someone who uses this construction many times in a single conversation, and he apparently has no idea how stupid he sounds. This is a 25-year-old guy (approx) and he sounds like a 12-year-old girl, except the girl would have the excuse of being too young to know better. If you’re trying to express your attitude about something, simply *say* that it’s your attitude. Using “like” in this way is a lazy, cop-out, imprecise manner of speaking. Who in heck is ever going to take you seriously (and want to promote you…) if this is the way you express yourself?

  19. David Morris says:

    My worry is that ‘like’ obliterates too many varied, nuanced, expressive synonyms for ‘say’ ( has 59 synonyms for ‘say’).

    • Stan says:

      As some usages fade, others materialise. We’re not going to run out of ways to express a useful or necessary nuance. And as an academic editor I wish more people would avoid some of those 59 synonyms (and more besides), at least until they know how to use them appropriately.

  20. Interesting! I hadn’t thought of the dramatising aspect of quotative like, but yes, in face to face conversations I think this plays a large part. We don’t just repeat verbal content, we add facial expressions and body language – and as someone else mentioned, we also don’t only use it to quote what was said, we sometimes use it to express unspoken feelings. (I say *we* – because I know I use it in speech sometimes. Which is sort of interesting as I’m over 50 and everyone on the internet is like “it’s only young people who do this abominable thing”…)

    I wonder, though, if there aren’t really two slightly different usages here. Those cases where people just post “I’m like” + an image – similarly to the verbal “I’m like” + words expressing unspoken thoughts/feelings – I’m wondering if those qualify as “quotative” or if they’re just a close relative of the quotative like. (Not sure what I’d call it though. For now I’m just wondering if what I’m saying makes sense to you.)

  21. […] cues and gestures that would normally allow a conversation partner know how you are feeling; “Offline we might say I’m like and make a caricatured facial expression.” This basically functions as the same rhetorical move, only in […]

  22. […] but Fry was having none of it (and went on to censure quotative like, which Merton also defended). Most of the audience found uptalk ‘deeply […]

  23. Rob Damon says:

    I think I may have a solution: more generally this use of ‘like’ can be understood as sympathetic circularity – an appeal to shared understandings which makes absolute explicitness unnecessary. (See Marin Montgomery – An Introduction to Language and Society – which is brilliantly lucid throughout.) This works better – as it explains the usage – with ‘quotative like as a sub-category. In my opinion, describing it as a filler (like ‘um’) is misleading,wrong.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Near the start of this post I identify the filler type (So, like, OK), among others, in passing. Obviously I don’t consider the usage described in this post as the filler type. I don’t know if anyone does. A recent study made some interesting findings on the word’s use in Ireland, especially among migrants.

  24. […] rise of quotative like (I was like, What?) has been swift and striking since it emerged a few decades ago. No word stays […]

  25. […] recent is the so-called quotative like (‘I’m like, Whoa!’), also often disparaged. This became widely established impressively fast […]

  26. […] recent is the so-called quotative like (‘I’m like, Whoa!’), also often disparaged. This became widely established impressively fast […]

  27. Galaxian says:

    Curiously, the “I’m like” construction seems to be on the wane. Maybe it was a Gen X phenomenon. I rarely hear Millennials in my home state of Utah using it, as they’ve gone back to “said.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Maybe young people in some areas are using it less than the generations before them did, but I would be wary of extrapolating worldwide from one group in one area. Certainly it gained prominence in Gen X, but quotative like first emerged among people born in the 1950s and ’60s.

  28. […] keen to appreciate yoofspeak, I learn from reading this post from Stan Carey on the “quotative […]

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