Language Arts

Julie - Bethel, Connecticut
Entered on January 30, 2008

“The King is dead. Long live the King.”

I believe that Like the King, so follows the English language, which breeds generations of linguistic fads, only to be replaced by new, worse ones.

If you find yourself constantly reminding your children that if they use the word, “like” once more in addition to the 43 times they’ve already used it in the course of the past three sentences, all verbal communications will be banned in your home — then you’re living the fad. And do you think that threat would be a deterrent for them?

Children and adults over the age of 4 attending school or not and living in the United States are among those I associate with the word’s abuse. I’m not trying to infuse William Safire-esque entomological commentary about the evolution of “like” in the popular lexicon.

I’m just, like, so tired of hearing it.

To illustrate my point, here’s a typical, post-school-day report by a typical child – mine – about the events of a typical day. Reading it aloud heightens its full effect:

“So, it was, like, after lunch and we were, like outside and, like, playing tag and then he, like, fell, and I’m like, you should go to the nurse because it was, like really really bleeding…”

As the sole beneficiary of his monologue, I admit relishing my brief inclusion in my daughter’s day. I did, however, simultaneously restrain the impulse to scream through my clenched teeth, “stop saying ‘LIKE or I will gag you!’”

I don’t often give in to my predisposition toward grammatical dictatorship when I’m in a near hysterical state: in fact I avoid “correcting” my kids’ verbal idiosyncrasies and try to reward them instead for speaking correctly, even though they’re way beyond lollipops and stickers. And here’s an important point that speaks to the effectiveness of behavior modification in my home: I surrounded the word, “corrections” in quotations because I recall the guy who installed my Invisible Fence pet containment system some years ago, who then returned to upgrade it because it wasn’t stopping my dog from bolting away. He used “correct” as a euphemism for the electric jolt my dog would receive upon nearing the perimeter line

“How badly will the shock hurt her?” I asked, cringing while I watched my fantastically stupid German Shepard trot toward the ring of now hot-wired white flags encircling the property. She had been outfitted with a Frankenstein-like collar, so inured was she to the negative consequences of this learning process.

“After she’s corrected a few times with that higher voltage, he said, chuckling with the thought of my dog’s impending electrocution, she won’t go near the line again.”

Thus my aversion to correcting.

So, I’ve done my best to alter my children’s use of the word, particularly on the negative side of the learning reinforcement spectrum. I’ll threaten, for example, “Stop it or I won’t give you allowance until you’re 35.” It’s even less menacing when I say it to them.

The state of language comes down to an age-old question: did my generation speak that way in its youth? I wonder if the word “like” even existed when I was young. It’s a possibility because so many essential things didn’t exist when I was a child that inhabit in my children’s everyday orbit, including the Internet, whose daily role in their lives is on par with oxygenation and hydration; cell phones, On Demand cable television service and Cup ‘O’ Noodles soup.

And now that I’ve all but resigned myself to the never-ending recurrence of “like,” a new word has melted its way into the vernacular, expediting my foreshortening trip to linguistic insanity. It’s the phrase, “I’m all…”

Here’s another example of that typical child relating another typical event. Again, reading it aloud enhances its maddening effect: “So, we’re out on the playground, and I’m all, ‘you fell,’ and he’s all, ‘I’m bleeding,’ and I’m all, ‘you’d better go to the nurse…’” Am I wrong or is that quirky little twist more irritating than “like?”

While I’m here, I’d like to address another anomaly that exists in the linguistic realm, in the form of a valid question: Why must just about everyone end declarative sentences with a question? I’m calling his “up-talking,” and I chafe at its chronic overuse. Here’s my last example of a typical person (in this case not related to me), describing a typical event in her day: “You wouldn’t believe how long it took for me to get across town today?” To which I responded, “Are you asking me or telling me?”

The venerable comedian, Robert Klein once commented on southerners’ proclivity to end statements with question-like lilts. His riff concluded that the Confederate Army lost the Civil War because when the generals initiated battles, they shouted, “Charge??!!” According to Mr. Klein, none of the soldiers knew if the generals were telling them or asking them.

The state of the Union might not be resting on it, but the equivocation of the English language is an easy way to sidestep certainty of thought, just in case the recipient might disagree with the statement. It’s not necessarily deliberate – it’s just turned into a singsong habit that makes the speaker seem, well, nicer.

I don’t have (too much of) a problem being nicer, at least where speaking is concerned, but I believe that people must choose their battles or they’ll always run around with their swords drawn (look what happened to the generals).

So, I’ll continue my vain attempts to “correct” my children’s verbiage, although I believe it’s as fruitless as redressing a dead Civil War general.

I guess I’m all, the King is, like, dead?

Um, are you asking me or telling me?