Thursday, 7 April 2011

Like and as

The Queen's English


Time Flies Like an Arrow, Fruit flies like a banana.

Is the sentence above, funny? If so, why is it funny? As a native speaker, I find it hilarious, rib-tickling, it cracks me up. (IW). But then, I love puns, and consider them to be contrary to what my mother used to say, the highest form of wit and humour.
It is funny because it relies on the fact that the word 'like' has two meanings in English.
When I was a child, our English teachers told us that there were many types of figurative language. They drilled us in the differences between metaphors and similes.
Because I expect that most of my readers are not native speakers, I will define those terms.
A simile compares one thing to another, using like or as: 'Carla looked like a gaudy tropical flower, with her red hair and her bright pink shorts and shirt”. (We see that the word simile therefore refers to comparing one thing to another and deciding that they are the same.)
“David laughed as a child does, high-pitched and helpless with mirth.”

A metaphor however, speaks of one thing as if it is another, without using either word :
“When she entered the room, she was a ship in full sail, imposing and magnificent, although more than a little bit frightening”.

It has been my observation that 'as' ought to be used far more than it is, and 'like' should be much less used, which brings me to the second meaning of like.
“I like to have peanut butter on my toast in the mornings, but I don't like the one with sugar, it's too sweet”. (I prefer peanut butter to any other spread, it's my favourite taste, although in my opinion peanut butter with sugar is just wrong and bad.)
“I like Matt, even though he tends to be a bit flighty sometimes”.

In 2007, an Italian friend asked me about the American TV show, 'Dead like me”. Did the title mean, he wondered 'I morti come me', or 'I morti me piace'? For those who don't speak Italian I will explain - he was asking which sense of the word 'like' was being used. The first sense - 'the dead are similar to me”, (or I to them) or the second one 'the dead like me' - I am to their taste. I was able to tell them that the sense of the show's title was the first - the dead are the same as me.

Many people use the word like in sense 1 - similar to, but their hearers assume sense 2. This can give rise to humour, misunderstanding or both. I remember years ago, laughing until I cried at a bit of dialogue on an Australian TV show. A number of men were in a cave in Crete, during World war 2. One of the men, referring to the fact that he felt very claustrophobic (cramped and uncomfortable) said to his fellows “I feel like a wombat” (sense 1, 'I feel similar to a wombat, which is a burrowing animal native to Australia.)
His friend replied “Where are you going to get a wombat from around here?”
I still laugh when I think of it years later, and also I laugh (although I should not) when I remember a friend apologising to me about something. He said “I feel like a *****” (I feel similar to a bad thing.) I offended him bitterly by laughing and asking “Where are you going to get one of those from around here?”
He was not amused, until I explained, then we laughed ourselves sick. (IW).

I have noticed that some people here in New Zealand, and in American film and TV tend to use 'like' in all possible sentences, causing similar ambiguity, although I no longer find it funny. They use 'like' where they ought to use 'as' or 'as if'... “I feel like I don't know what I am doing these days”.
(Ideally they should say “I feel as if I don't know what I am doing these days”. I could multiply the examples, but I don't think I need to, do I?

This is without mentioning other than in passing, the teen use of like as a filler -
“She was like, 'I want to go and buy some shoes' and I was like, 'okay, what kind do you like?”

Therefore my advice is that you use 'like' only as a verb meaning preference, choice or taste, and for sense 1 as a comparative, whenever possible, use 'as' or 'as if'. That way, you can avoid ambiguity.
For example: "Carla looked as gaudy as a tropical flower"...

Cracks me up: Renders me helpless with laughter.
Laughed (myself, ourselves) sick : I/we laughed until we were at risk of vomiting.

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