Hypercorrect ‘as’ for ‘like’

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:

politico.eu grammar - hypercorrect as for like

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:

  1. As your doctor, I advise you to exercise.
  2. Like your doctor, I advise you to exercise.
  3. *As any doctor, I advise you to exercise.
  4. 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.


17 Responses to Hypercorrect ‘as’ for ‘like’

  1. M says:

    Stress reduction and later English’s unfortunate allergy to VS order could be a contributing factor. I saw this as “As would any..” and can readily imagine a hearer of such a dialect editing out a post-particle schwa.

  2. I’m sure you’re right, Stan, and it’s mostly fear of the rule against like as a conjunction. But maybe it is also related to the fear of object pronouns? This leads to avoidance of ‘me’ and even ‘him’, as in ‘between he and Smith’. Do you think this fear may have spread and cause avoidance of ‘like me / him’ etc?

  3. With foreign speakers there is also the possibility of interference from L1. German ‘als’, for example, can prompt overuse of ‘as’ where ‘when’ is needed. But this is a different, though related, point.

  4. I hadn’t realized that the Winston ad also says “tastes real good” – that bothers me more than “like a cigarette should.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      I hadn’t even thought about that! Real good doesn’t bother me at all; as an informal (and not incorrect) usage, it’s not out of place in advertising.

      • Harry Lake says:

        I’m amazed to hear you say ‘not incorrect usage’, but then I thought Hang on, Stan’s Irish. Could that be relevant?

        • Ying Yang says:

          Seeing as Ireland has produced some of the English languages most magnificent writers, scribers, poets, and players of its form, rhythm and description, it matters not a jot. Yet, Stan, as language is a living, changing, evolving beast… let it breathe.

      • Stan Carey says:

        It’s not about being Irish but descriptivist. All the major dictionaries include real as an adverb and label it ‘informal’ (or sometimes ‘spoken’). Merriam-Webster also notes that the usage is ‘becoming more common in writing of an informal, conversational style’.

  5. kcecelia says:

    Your blog makes me happy, Stan. It is intelligent, and it pierces the pedantry sometimes associated with the elegant, varied, flexible, and ever-changing beauty of the English language. My literature major, English teacher, librarian mom was maddened by the Marlboro ads you mention. She would raise her voice at the television and say, “As! As a cigarette should!” That Walter Cronkite shared her distress makes me smile. I enjoy a world in which we have both prescriptivists and descriptivists to help us find a balance between what is correct and what is hypercorrect, though I wish for more voices like yours to point out the drawbacks of rigid language prescription.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thank you, Katherine; it’s very nice of you to say. Certain rigid prescriptions have their place, but their adherents tend to claim more ground for them than they’re entitled to, such as less formal registers where the conventions of strictly proper English are less important or don’t apply at all. For the sake of one’s blood pressure I find it makes sense to adapt one’s expectations accordingly.

  6. davidwilliams594123794 says:

    As likely, or more so, to be elliptical for “As [with]” or “As [for]” or “As any politician [would]”, rather than a hypercorrection, I think.

    • In writing, the most important thing is that the intent is communicated clearly to the reader, surely. In this instance, using “As any politician…” rather than “As with any politician…” or “Like any politician…” – simply to comply with the rules of a grammar stylebook – failed that test.

      • Stan Carey says:

        As an editing lapse it’s no big deal, I think, but it does offer an interesting example by which to review the as/like usage debate. It may have arisen as elliptical for As with, etc., but I think confusion over the as/like ‘rule’ is more probable.

  7. Harry Lake says:

    I’ve just come across a usage that I consider perfectly usual and correct. The description of a book offered on eBay includes ‘Condition: Like new’. That, of course, is perfectly common, but to me it is somehow wrong – more usual and better, I think, is ‘As new’. Or am I getting confused?

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