What’s ‘like’ like?

Grammar quirks

The many different uses of the word ‘like'

Another episode in a short series of videos describing some interesting oddities in the language. This one's about the many different ways there are of using that commonplace little word ‘like'.

What’s ‘like’ like?

Have you ever thought about that little, commonplace word ‘like’? Do you spend much time in the class teaching it? Like, how many different ways of using it can you think of? (did you see what I did there?). There are actually a lot. I’m Jo Gakonga from ELT-Training.com and this is another in my series on Grammar Quirks.

Now, I’m not sure if this can really be called a grammar quirk – it’s really lexical, but it’s certainly an interesting language quirk, so I’m going to include it in this series anyway.

Like is, of course, a very common English word and it’s probably one of the earliest ones that people learn. The first time people come up against it might be as a functional exponent for polite requests and offers: ‘I’d like a coffee, please’ or ‘What would you like?’

But also, of course as a verb to express approval or enjoyment: ‘I like your new haircut’. 

To be honest, though, in these digital days, it’s quite likely that the first exposure to it as a verb is through social media. 'I wonder if you’ll ‘like’ this video', for example.

What else is quirky about this... how about ‘is it followed by a gerund or an infinitive?’ Most verbs are clear on this – it’s one or the other, but unusually, 'like' can be followed by both without even very much change in meaning. It’s arguable that the infinitive is more for things that you think are a good idea, ‘I like to clean the toilet pretty regularly’ rather than things that fill you with joy, but I can think of loads of examples where the infinitive or gerund could be used interchangeably.

What else? Well, there’s ‘like’ as a preposition, meaning ‘similar to’ and used in the very useful question: ‘What’s it like?’ This is definitely useful for learners to know.

Following on from that, we’ve got the difference between ‘What is she like?’ and ‘What does she look like?’ (and you can see how the difference between these and ‘what does she like?’ would be tricky and why, as a learner, you would really easily make the mistake of saying ‘She’s like tall’….u-uh . since it’s perfectly OK to say ‘she’s like her mother’.

Then there’s the use of it as a suffix at the end of a noun to make an adjective: 'she’s rather child-like', for example.

And finally, there are all the spoken uses of the word ‘like’ that you probably don’t teach… as a filler to give thinking time…. To focus attention on what’s coming next, especially for quantities or times... and, of course, as a way of introducing reported speech. I often hear that this is restricted to teenagers, but I’m afraid I often find myself doing it, so I’d say it’s more widespread than that.

So, that innocuous little word with it’s many, many meanings and uses. Which one will you teach your class this week?

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