Using like as a conjunction

Using like as a conjunction is ranked as #7 in a list on onlinecollege.org of the 20 most controversial rules in the grammar world. In Traditional grammar and usage, like is used as a preposition, while as is used as a conjunction.

This particular English language controversy caused a different kind of uproar when Walter Cronkite, newly appointed as a CBS morning news anchor in 1954, was asked to read the copy for Winston cigarettes. (Anchor-read endorsements were commonplace in the 1950s.) The cigarette company was launching a new slogan which used like as a conjunction: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” Cronkite refused to read this “ungrammatical” copy, so he “corrected the grammar,” saying “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.” It caused quite a furor with the sponsor and its ad agency, and Cronkite never did another commercial (mentalfloss.com, YouTube). Poet and humorist Ogden Nash also objected to the use of like as a conjunction, even in advertisements, quipping “Like goes Madison Avenue, like so goes the nation” in a poem for The New Yorker (ecugrammar.blogspot.com).

The online Cambridge Dictionary reports that as and like can function as both prepositions and conjunctions. When used as prepositions, they have different meanings: As + a noun means “in the role of,” while, like + a noun means “similar to” or “in the same way as” (dictionary.cambridge.org). Consider these comparisons the site provides:

As your father, I’ll help you as much as I can.

The speaker is the listener’s father.

Like your father, I’ll help you as much as I can.

The speaker is not the father but wishes to act in a similar way to the father.

When used as conjunctions, as and like have the same meaning, but using like as a conjunction is considered more informal, which The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage states as the “coded language of modern grammarians” for “illiterate,” “vulgar,” “sloppy” (458). For instance, the style book of the British journal The Economist states that “like governs nouns and pronouns, not verbs and clauses. . . . as in America not like in Americaas I was saying, not like I was saying” (89).

Yet New Fowler’s cites the Oxford English Dictionary’s examples of the use of like as a conjunction dating back to Shakespeare’s time and continuing through the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. However, a 1903 OED edition noted that it was condemned generally as vulgar and slovenly. Indeed, the 1926 edition of Fowler reinforced this censure, saying “in good writing this particular like is very rare.” This attitude continued throughout much of the 20th century. Thus, Please try to write like I do is considered incorrect, while, constructions such as Please try to write as I do and Please try to write like me are considered standard. (New Fowler’s 458).

New Fowler’s takes an extensive look at like as a conjunction, which is very helpful and instructive, and it provides contemporary usage examples with authors to illustrate the different uses.

The four main uses of like as conjunction

  1. like – “in the way that

New Fowler’s argues that this use of like as a conjunction should be accepted because it is the most frequently used and is common in all English-speaking countries. It is employed with the repetition of the verb (underlined) that is used in the main clause. New Fowler’s believes that this use, which carries the sense of “in the way that,” may owe its popularity from the song “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie)”:

They didn’t talk like other people talked. (Amis, 1981)

Gordon needs Sylvia like some people need to spend an hour or two every day simply staring out of the window. (P. Lively, 1987)

I’m afraid it might happen to my baby like it happened to Jefferson. (New Yorker, 1987)

  1. like – “as if, as though

A second use of like as a conjunction to mean “as if, as though” is frequently used in the United States and Australia, but is less common in Britain:

 It looks like it’s still a fox. (New Yorker, 1986)

She acts like she can’t help it. (Lee Smith, 1987 [US])

 I wanted him born and now it feels like I don’t want him. (E. Jolley, 1985 [Aust.])

  1. like – “as”

This third use of like as a conjunction as being interchangeable with as is prevalent in all English-speaking countries in, as New Fowler’s describes it, “a range of fixed, somewhat jocular, phrases of saying and telling”:

Send for your copy now. Like we said it’s free. (Globe & Mail, Toronto, 1968)

Like you say, you’re a dead woman. (M. Wesley, 1983)

Well, like I told you, I work with him upstairs.  (P. Ackroyd, 1985)

Like I said, I haven’t seen Rudi for weeks. (T. Keneally, 1985)

  1. like – “in the manner (that), in the way (that)”

New Fowler’s identifies a fourth use increasingly employed when a comparison is being used, though the reference distinguishes that this use is more common abroad than in America or Britain: “In these it has the force of ‘in the manner (that), in the way (that)’”:

You call us Mum and Dad like you always have. (M. Wesley, 1983)

How was I to know she’d turn out like she did? (C. Burns, 1985 [New Zealand])

Like Jack and Jill came down the hill, Dilip also rolled down the box-office in “Karma.”(Star & Style [Bombay], 1986)

(Examples and explanations adapted from New Fowler’s 458.)

Despite the growing use and acceptance of like as a conjunction, even New Fowler’s admits that the long-standing resistance to it has been slow to “crumble” in formal and traditional settings. As with other controversial grammar rules and myths, you as a writer have the choice to decide the usage based on your own preferences, your audience, and the context. If you’re writing for an academic or a professional setting, you would probably do best to follow the traditional rule to avoid notice or censure of people like the modern grammarians mentioned above; if you’re writing for more informal or “jocular” or creative situations, then using like as a conjunction should not cause debate.

(Most of the content of this blog post is adapted from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Additional material came from dictionary.cambridge.org, ecugrammar.blogspot.com, and mentalfloss.com. See the interview with Cronkite on YouTube where he discusses his handling of the Winston ad slogan. The Winston “ungrammatical” ad controversy continued into the 70s when the company produced another advertisement, playing off the academic reaction to the 1950s slogan by showing the slogan being discussed in an English class, which resulted in a clever op-ed accessed here.)

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