Young children are prone to excitedly speaking without breathing. For that reason, it is not uncommon to hear a child have to gasp for air in the middle of a sentence before continuing with his or her thought immediately thereafter as if nothing had happened. As children grow older, they learn how to multitask, talking and breathing in such a way that speech does not interfere with breathing so gasping does not interfere with speech.

After mastering the art of simultaneous breathing and speaking, older children, and later adults, often pick up verbal tics. In some cases, verbal tics arise when a person is nervous. In others, tics show their head when a person is looking for a thought or word. But in far too many cases, tics arise every third or fourth word, regardless of circumstance. The most common and most pernicious of this type of verbal tic is “like,” and one is unlikely to overhear a sentence that does not include a misplaced “like” – or 2 or 3 – while walking anywhere in New York City. Nothing does more to create ambiguity where none should exist, cause misunderstandings, and turn sentences into mush than does “like.”

A “Like” Horrifying Sentence

Just today, I was walking down the street in Brooklyn when I heard a young lady utter the following sentence: “Like there was like no follow-through.” I had many questions. Was there “like no follow-through,” or was it simply the case that someone did not follow through on something? Or to further reduce the sentiment, did someone not do something? Note, however, that “like” reared its head twice. Was there “like no follow-through,” or was it only as if there was like no follow-through? I was only within earshot for as long as it took her to say “like there was like no follow-through,” so I can only imagine what had actually transpired.

Against “Like” Optimism

It will not be easy to turn the tide against “like,” or its unfortunate close second cousin, “literally.” As soon as kids learn to comfortably talk and breathe, they are inundated by adults and older kids saying “like” every other word. Their own parents may say “like” every other word, or every third word if they are lucky. If one hopes that the kids will find good influences at school – they are sadly likely mistaken. Not only will the child’s peers have the “like” bug, their teachers may well exist in a state of like delirium. It is not the nature of epidemics to give way easily.

Drawing of a rector's wife talking to a rector from vol. 121 of Punch Magazine, published on November 21, 1891.
The lady here is scolding the young man for saying that there was “like no follow-through” when she asked whether something had been done. He is absorbing her lesson in order that he does not re-offend. That is actually neither what is happening nor “like” what is happening. I clipped this picture from vol. 121 of Punch Magazine, published on November 21, 1891. You can find the full story of the picture in the magazine on Project Gutenberg.

A New “Like” Verbal Tic Paradigm?

“Like” is the most common verbal tic today, but it is not the only one. A little while ago here at The New Leaf Journal, I told the story of a high school classmate who decided on a whim that he wanted to be a model, only to have his dreams dashed mere minutes later, at which point he declared himself a future “model maker.” Later during that same year, he uttered the following line during art class: “Yo, my journal is mad exclusive yo.” “Yo” certainly served as a verbal tic there, but it served a different purpose than “like” usually does. The first “yo” was deployed to arrest our attention while the second “yo” was carefully placed for emphasis. There was no doubt what he wanted to convey to the art class – the mad exclusivity of his journal.

From the “mad exclusive journal” anecdote, I propose a new paradigm for verbal tics. If one cannot readily curtail his or her entrenched used of a verbal tic, at least do not let that usage turn sentences into mush. One should speak decisively. If he or she cannot curb a verbal tic, find a way to use it productively. I would suggest keeping some kind of record of sentences with said verbal tic in order to see what works and what does not – perhaps some sort of “mad exclusive journal.”