In a published letter to the editor this past Sunday, Bill Tracy of Springfield criticized D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for her use of “my parents were like,” “she was like,” and “they were like” during a recent interview with the Washington Post.  Here’s Mr. Tracy’s argument:

While the use of “were (was) like” as a combination verb/adjective has become distressingly commonplace in conversations, particularly among the younger generation, one would expect a person in charge of a public school system would speak a bit better.

Mr. Tracy believes also that “they said” or “they reacted” would have been “more precise and grammatically correct” choices for the chancellor.

But think what you can do with “were (was) like” (and its cousin, “were (was) all”).  Instead of merely quoting someone, you’re offering, to an extent that varies with the purpose, audience, and your own talents, a quick impersonation of the person quoted.  Because that’s what you do when you start with “he was like” or “he was all”:

And she was like, “Get out of the bathroom!  Now!” [“Now!” is presented as a shriek; speaker jumps up and down and starts pounding a wall or table.]

I wouldn’t expect that kind of a performance-sketch if you prefaced your quote with Mr. Tracy’s “they said” or “they reacted.”  In fact, if you prefaced an impersonation with “they said,” I’d feel you were being a bit unfair or over the top.  But because “were (was) like” includes a quick brushstroke of the quoted person’s attitude, body language, and (sometimes) actions, it is, in its way, more precise than “they said.”

People who use “he was like” (and I am one of them) are usually somewhat unfair with their impersonations, but the person listening expects nothing less when she hears the “he was like” introduction.  She gets the speaker’s side of it, she knows the speaker is exaggerating his subject’s mannerisms and inflections (and maybe his volume and some other things), and as a good listener and observer she learns something about the personalities of both the speaker and his subject.  She is also in a position to interpolate what really happened.  How much communication goes into a sentence or phrase starting with “he was all” or “he was like”!

“Was (were) like” is really a verb/adverb combination, not a verb/adjective combination as Mr. Tracey states, and The American Heritage Dictionary lists the following as an informal use of “like”:

[U]sed to convey a person’s reported attitude or feelings in the form of direct speech (whether or not representing an actual quotation): so she comes into the room and she’s like “Where is everybody?”

The American Heritage Dictionary has a more conservative philosophy than, say, Merriam-Webster concerning new usage, so I’m guessing that, if the AHD accepts “was (were) like,” it’s not going away.

Mr. Tracy would have been on firmer ground had he argued that Chancellor Rhee should have had the presence of mind to consider how her mini-performances would look in print.  Whenever I read something like, “He was all, ‘I’m never speaking to you again as long as I live!’” I know I’m missing the mini-performance that must have come with the speaker’s quote.

I would have been with Mr. Tracy also had he complained about the use of “like” as a random word or sound in a sentence.  (Chancellor Rhee must not have fallen for that one.)  I use “um” that way, but at least “um” can’t confuse my listeners the way “like” can.  For instance, if someone who uses “like” in this haphazard manner says, “He was like an army sergeant,” I’m not sure if he’s using a simile or identifying the subject as a sergeant.  That’s imprecise, though if the speaker had the latter intent, some well-placed commas could help.  But commas don’t help much in conversation.

This use of “like” has its advantages over my “um,” though.  Some people start a sentence with “like,” and it means, “I don’t know exactly how to break this to you, and I really shouldn’t have to say this to anyone other than a moron, but I guess it’s my duty to let you know that . . .”  “Like” is looking pretty economical, eh?

You may argue that my “um” can say the same thing, and I confess that I think I can contort my face and roll my eyes and say “um” in a way that gets across something of the same message.  But a sharp “like” gets the message across without the performance.  Ironically, I guess.

Sometimes I suspect that a person uses “like” in the middle of a sentence to suggest that she has thought about it, and what follows is just the right word or phrase.  In other words, it serves to emphasize the word or phrase that follows it.  Sometimes, though, I think “like” used in this way simply means, “if you will,” “per se,” “in a manner of speaking” – that sort of thing.  In other words, the speaker is suggesting that what follows the “like” is probably not the right word or phrase.  The fact that I have to decide between these opposing meanings makes me think that this more random-sounding use of “like” is imprecise.

The main issue I have with Mr. Tracy, though, is his choice of medium.  I rarely read letters to the editor. How can you get anything thought through in a letter to the editor?  The article Mr. Tracy comments on is nowhere in sight.  Assuming I could get an eighth of this post published as a letter to the editor in anything like its present form, Mr. Tracy’s letter would be nowhere in sight.  A blog is, like, sooo much better.