I tweeted about this a couple of months ago and have been meaning to follow up ever since. The item that interests me is a usage in the subhead of an article from Brussels-based news service Politico. Here’s the relevant portion:
The use of as in ‘As any politician, the Greek PM wants to stay in power’ immediately felt wrong. I soon realised it should be Like any politician, and that superstition about like must have led the writer, or editor, to use as where it does not belong. It’s a hypercorrection.
The reason for this confusion is a prescriptive rule about the use of like which says the word can be used as a preposition (Do it like this) but not, in formal English, as a conjunction (Do it like you usually do).
If my second example strikes you as perfectly normal, you might be surprised by how adamantly it’s rejected by sticklers. Strunk and White, of course, are among the naysayers. In The Elements of Style they describe it as a vogue expression long used ‘by the illiterate’ and more recently by those who Should Know Better who ‘find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming’.
Strunk and White’s note betrays their prejudice; like was used as a conjunction by Chaucer in the 14thC and has been in reputable use ever since. Shakespeare used it. Otto Jespersen found it in Dickens, Shaw, Emily Brontë, Keats, Kipling, George Eliot, and many other great authors. It grew in popularity in the 19th–20thC, after a period of relatively low use, and this probably fuelled the backlash.
The controversy over like as a conjunction reached its apex in 1954 with the release of a notorious ad for Winston cigarettes that contained the slogan Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.
Walter Cronkite was so bothered by the grammar that he refused to read the ad on air, and one usage dictionary said the ad writer ‘should be jailed’. Winston responded to the furore years later with the slogan What do you want, good grammar or good taste?: to which the Wall Street Journal sniffed, ‘In a Winston ad, you don’t get either.’ Maybe they haven’t read enough Dickens.
Merriam-Webster says conjunctional like has ‘never been less than standard’; the Chicago Manual of Style, among others, disagrees. M-W’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage explains how Politico’s hypercorrect phrase may have arisen: ‘The frequent adjuration against conjunctional like is believed to have frightened some people into using as for all purposes, even for a preposition.’ It cites examples such as the following, which is broadly analogous to Politico’s:
New York, as most major cities, has found that the general public is very apathetic (N.Y Times, 12 October 1970)
Readers can work out what’s meant by this, but grammatically the line is implying that New York is most major cities. In other words, it’s nonsense. Now consider as and like in prepositional use in these lines:
- As your doctor, I advise you to exercise.
- Like your doctor, I advise you to exercise.
- *As any doctor, I advise you to exercise.
- Like any doctor, I advise you to exercise.
Speaker 1 is a doctor offering advice in that capacity. S2 is not a doctor but is agreeing with what the doctor said or would say. S4 is probably a doctor, while line 3 can be understood like 4 but only with effort, since it strays into ungrammaticality. It sounds odd and unfinished, as though it should be, e.g., As any doctor would say. The same applies to As any politician, the Greek PM wants to stay in power.
Copy-editors should be alert to potential hypercorrection, and should absolutely avoid introducing it themselves through over-allegiance to a rule that might not apply (or even be a valid rule). This may require that they consult a variety of style manuals at least some of which are based on facts and evidence rather than fiat, habit, and fancy.