Like, You Know What I Mean?

She was using the word, “like,” like a machete hacking its way through a jungle tangled with subjects and predicates. If verbs were the equivalent of jaguars stalking her and nouns the equivalent of screeching birds, it could be said that she was slicing her way through that jungle with heart pounding, trying to make her way to safety as quickly as she could.

Unfortunately her machete was as dull as the typical answer to the social media question, “What are you doing right now?” Why? Because the word, “like,” is little more than a substitute for, “Uhm,” when used multiple times in a sentence–every sentence–on and on and on until the listener just might hope that the jaguar gets her.

In her defense, I suspect that the woman I overheard chattering away at the gym was a young mother who probably spends the bulk of her day interacting with small children with vocabularies that total about fifty words. She might simply need a regular dose of adult conversation to reclaim the English language. Or not. I found myself contemplating how the next generation will use the English language if what they are getting from their mothers is a daily dose of “like” that is enough to give them verbal diabetes.

Of course, “like” is not the only word that is abused in the English language. “Awesome” is another. The view from the top of a fourteen thousand foot mountain is definitely awesome. Heroic acts can be. So can sunsets and mystical insights. But whether we like it or not, everything is not awesome. Has the overuse of the word come from the practice of trying to level the playing field for humans so much that every child gets a prize after the competition is over (whether or not her team has actually won) and every handcrafted item is called “art” (whether the crafter has talent or not)? Or is “awesome” just another machete hacking its way through the English language.

When it was suggested that there was “trouble in River City,” the culpret was identified as that deadly destroyer of morals . . . pool. The anidote offered was the musical instrument.  Is telvision the new pool? If so, what is the antidote? Books? And can life really be reduced in this way? I think not.

On the other hand, I have had to turn off the television more than once to save it from the hatchet when I heard one more basketball player utter, “Know what I’m sayin’?” or “Duhyuh know what I mean?” When I began to hear those phrases coming out of the mouth of my youngest sister (who rightfully could be considered the woman on the street, though I, of course, think she’s special), I knew things were seriously out of hand.

When I heard “like” coming out of my own mouth a bit too often, I knew it was even worse than that.

I’m a professional writer and editor. Words are important to me. Words strung together in sentences that make sense and paragraphs that ring true are more tastey to me than anything the finest Denver or Boulder restaurant might provide. And sometimes a book is, indeed, awesome. I want my own spoken language to have some merit because I know that the words falling from the fingertips become compromised when the spoken language gets sloppy. I also know that when I am inundated by sloppy spoken language, it seeps into me like ground water making its way through the cracks in my foundation of words.

I’m not willing to sequester myself because I have to interact with the world to spark my internal writing mechanisms. What is a writer to do? I’m not sure. But this little post is a plea sent out as a request for mercy. Sharpen your machete and I promise to sharpen mine.


Copyright 2009 by Melanie Mulhall

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11 Responses to “Like, You Know What I Mean?”

  1. Anne Doyle Says:

    What is a body to do? The world is full of people whose words flow without passing through their cognitive centers; they seem instead to come directly from the mouth without any fore thought. Still, we must listen. For they too often have something to say. We just have to want to hear it.

    Sometimes a gentle reminder can help the young to reduce the “likes” and “ums” and they realize that word choice is something that they control. They forget again if they become excited or emotional and return to the comfort of the familiar, but as least they can do it.

    I wish you well in your quest for good language. But the power of cultural change is strong on this one. Makes we wonder what else is afoot in these times of media penetration?

    All good wishes!!


  2. Rosemary Carstens Says:

    Oh, Melanie, I am SO with you on this. I actually get a kick/tickle out of a lot of street language and use it to provoke or amuse my kids from time to time. They just don’t expect their mother to respond: Say, dawg, that’s what I mean! But often, before I sit down to write something I want to be expressive, I read from something eloquent, like Ellen Meloy’s Anthropology of Turquoise and others, someone whose “voice” is one I really admire. Your point is well taken about the influence of language and I’ll keep it in mind. Fun metaphors!


    • Melanie Mulhall Says:


      The conscious use of street language to amuse your kids is something I can not only appreciate, it makes me smile.

      I like the idea of reading something lovely before sitting down to write and it fits with my suggestion that good books might be the antidote to horrible English. I’m unfamiliar with Meloy’s work . . . but I won’t be for long. Your suggestions are always solid.

      I might suggest that my readers also go to for a dose of good reading too.

      Thanks for your comments, Rosemary.



  3. Melanie Mulhall Says:

    Sweet Anne,

    I suspect that you are a kinder soul than me. I propose that we do not have to listen–except when assailed in public places with no clear getaway route.

    They may or may not have something to say worth listening to. If the content–that which is behind the painful use of the English language–is worthwhile, the form is still so problematic that I may be too distracted by the language to hear it or unwilling to sift through the form to get to it. And to the extent that I am willing to listen, am I not supporting that machete toting speaker’s horrific use of the language? Isn’t that another kind of misuse of leveling the playing field?

    Where the young are concerned, can a parent who abuses language be counted on to correct her children–gently or not? Or a teacher?

    It may take a village to keep a language from spiraling down into grunts and moans, but if some of the village is already grunting and moaning and much of the remainder are listening patiently, we’re all going to be sliding around in the muck before long.

    Thanks for your comments, Anne.


  4. Anne Doyle Says:

    Dare I say…Ugh! Duh? Wah? Huh! Woop!

    All good wishes!!


  5. Cindy Morris Says:

    I’m sure those who came before us were as horrified by our generation’s massacre of the English language in much the same way we are horrified by today’s bludgeoning. English is an evolving language, evocative of the time in which it is spoken. The messiness, sloppiness, and general disrespect for “correct” use of English is more a statement of the times than anything else. At least that’s how I see it.

    I am equally horrified by the misuse of like and such as I am of blueberry or, God forbid, jalapeno, bagels. All I can do is make the best choices for myself, continue to speak and write English in the way that shines this interesting language in its unique light. And continue to support publications like the New Yorker, which consistently publishes beautifully written words. Know what I mean, sista?

    Cindy Morris, msw
    Priestess Entrepreneur


    • Melanie Mulhall Says:


      Of course, you are right about our elders. Somehow I managed to avoid phrases like “Far out!” when I was young and somehow “Cool!” has not only made it to common speach, but I use it a good deal.

      I’m not concerned about new words and phrases being added to the English language. The language is dead if it does not stay organic. I am concerned with the use of words and phrases as filler and instead of real words that communicate something.

      And, yes, “sista,” supporting publications like The New Yorker (as well as good books) is a great way to keep our own language polished and put our money where our mouths are at the same time.

      Thanks for your comments, “girlfriend.”



  6. HackTalk Says:

    There are many times where me and my girlfriend will retort back to this conversation. I try to be as articulate as possible at all times while still using a bit of colloquialisms to keep my speech for the most part modern. The reason I started having these conversations with my girlfriend is because during my AP English: Language & Composition I was told that I had to rewrite a paper I had turned in because I was apparently “overly articulate.” I asked the teacher if maybe I was just too bombast in my writing and she replied with, “No but it seems as if you are trying to prove your vocabulary is large by using ‘large’ words when you could use a ‘smaller’ word instead.” She didn’t seem to care that saying “The herculean sized mountain of homework suddenly came down at me like a deluge of shoppers on Christmas day” was more descriptive than, “I had a lot of homework.” I had to rewrite the entire paper and “dumb it down” in order to receive my grade.


  7. Claire Walter Says:

    I try not hear “like” anymore. I try to filter it out the way I try to filter out athletes who, in interviews, interject “ya know” between every pair of phrases or the previous verval habit of saying “she goes” instead of “she said.” Let’s hope this one passes too, but it will probably be replaced by something equally annoying.

    I agree with Cindy Morris that our word choices (no matter how old “we” are) horrified those who came just before us. I had elementary school teachers (4th, 5th, 6th grade) remind us about the differences between “will” and “shall,” between “might” and “may.” I supposed that teachers are now so busy helping schoolchildren feel good about themselves that they don’t stoop to grammar and word use.


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