If you have studied English, you probably know what the word like means, but if you try to speak like an American and you haven’t lived in the United States, you may be unfamiliar with the some of the more informal uses of the term. Even though you may hesitate to use like in these less formal ways, they have become so common in day-to-day conversation that you’ll have a difficult time understanding native English speakers outside of your academic or professional life if you haven’t at least studied them. Included below are examples of the informal uses of like to help you speak like an American.
To describe preferences
If you know enough English to read this article, you should be familiar with the word like as a verb used to describe preferences.
- I like learning English on italki.
- I like hamburgers more than hot dogs.
Like can also be used to compare two things.
- That man looks like Tom Cruise.
- One of these things is not like the other.
Close in meaning to “such as”
Like can also be used to replace such as.
- Technologies like smart phones and tablets are changing business.
- Technologies such as smart phones and tablets are changing business.
Like in this example has about the same meaning as such as. The technologies the speaker has in mind that are changing business may include smart phones and tablets, but the speaker may also simply be referring to similar technologies. In the such as sentence, the technologies that the speaker thinks are changing business definitely include smart phones and tablets.
Close in meaning to “as if”
Like replaces as if to link two clauses together.
- They spend money like they they’ve just won the lottery.
- They spend money as if they’ve just won the lottery.
Note: The two previous usages are seen by some as informal, but they are so common that the average English speaker is not even aware of a difference.
The informal uses of like will help you speak like an American.
To stop and think
Like can be used in the same way as the words um, uh, and well. It lets you pause in the middle of a sentence to figure out what else you want to say.
- Person A: Are you coming with us on Friday?
- Person B: I... like...don’t know yet because I might have to stay late at the office.
Giving an estimate, making an exaggeration
Like can be used to tell the listener that what you are about to say is approximate or that you are about to exaggerate.
- Why are you still studying? We have like five minutes until the exam.
Here, it is likely that five minutes is only an approximation of the time remaining before the exam. The implication is that the speaker thinks it is a waste of time to study because there is such a short amount of time left.
- Person A: Can you believe Sarah has a new boyfriend?
- Person B: Yeah, she’s dated like thirty guys this year.
The truth may be that Sarah has only dated five guys this year. Thirty is an exaggeration.
Describing what you or someone else said or thought
Like may be used to describe what someone was saying at an earlier point in time.
In this case the word said is replaced by a form of the verb to be before the word like.
- They wanted me to drive all of them, and I said, “No way. My old car might actually fall apart if we go that far.”
- They wanted me to drive all of them, and I’m like, “No way. My old car might actually fall apart if we go that far.”
The first sentence above can only have one meaning, that the words were said just as they appear in quotation marks. The second sentence could have this same meaning, or it could represent a rewording of what the speaker actually said.
Like is often used to describe something you were thinking but did not say aloud.
- Person A: How was work?
- Person B: My boss said he wants me to finish the project by Friday, and I’m like, “is this guy crazy?”
In this conversation, Person B is describing to Person A what he was thinking; he did not actually say the words, “is this guy crazy?” to his boss.
Sometimes it’s difficult to determine which use (a quotation or a thought) is intended by the speaker.
- Person A: How was work?
- Person B: My boss said he wants me to finish the project by Friday, and I’m like, “are you crazy?”
In this case, Person B could either be describing what he was thinking or what he actually said out loud. The listener may have to ask for clarification. For example, “Did you actually say that to your boss?”
Like, when used to indicate what someone was saying or thinking, is very useful for conversations where the speaker is expressing strong attitudes. Body language, facial expressions or non-verbal vocalizations that convey emotion can completely replace the words after the “be + like” construction to indicate how the speaker felt.
- He was like, “don’t you know what you’re doing?” and I was like [shrugs shoulders].
- He was like, “the repair won’t be cheap”, and I was like, [irritated sigh].
When to use informal like
Be aware that because of the extreme informality, these uses of like are often viewed negatively or are thought to be grammatically incorrect. Their acceptability varies with the age of the speaker and the context.
It may feel and sound awkward to use like in informal conversation until you have studied English for a while, and have spent a good amount of time talking with native speakers. A good rule to follow is that if you have to make a conscious effort to put a word or expression into a sentence, don’t use it. When you have enough exposure to informal English that you use it without thinking, you will sound more like American English is your first language.