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Like  Quotativea Part of English Grammar Now?
as a quotative — a way of indicating speech — has spread like a global brushfire, cutting across ethnic and social lines. John Singler explores the origins and use of like to introduce everything from verbatim speech to inner monologue or, like, just a sense of things.

Over the last 25 years, the use of like to report quoted speech has swept across the English-speaking world. Nowadays a stretch of conversation may sound like this one:

He was like, “Where do you wanna go?”

I was like, “I dunno.”

He was like, “Okay.”

I was like, “Where are we going?”

He was like, “Don't worry about it.”1

People may associate this use of like with white middle-class American teenaged girls (and Britney Spears does come across as the phenomenon’s No. 1 user), but what linguists call the “like quotative” shows up among young people in Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and – undoubtedly – many other countries where English is spoken.

Within the US, it isn’t just white or middle-class speakers who use the like quotative. Regardless of ethnicity or social class, virtually every young person uses it at least some of the time. And it’s not just young people any more, as the following two examples show:

When they said no one could figure out the Holy Trinity, I was like, “Why not?”

It was like, “Arthur, the deal here is we’re gonna listen to you but I’m makin’ my own cartoon.”

The speaker in the first example is Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, and the speaker in the second is filmmaker Robert Altman. Wilson was born in 1945, Altman twenty years earlier. (Wilson was quoted in an interview in the New Yorker, Altman in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.)

student in los angeles, ca

Wilson and Altman, like others their age, probably still use more traditional quotatives like say and askand tell most of the time. That is no longer true for younger speakers. An ongoing study of college students in the New York City area shows that most high school and college students there using like quotatives most of the time in their everyday speech. They will still use say or ask or tell on occasion, but at least two-thirds of the time it is like that they use to introduce a quotation.

Five questions come to mind about the like quotative:

1. Do people use it the same way that they use say?

2. Is the like quotative a part of English grammar now?

3. Where did it come from?

4. How did it spread from the US to other countries?

5. Is it here to stay?

1. Do people use the like quotative the same way they use say?

There is an important difference between the like quotative and say. When people use say, they are making some sort of claim of literalness. With a like quotative, that claim of literalness is not necessarily there. Consider these two sentences:

Tiffany said, “I’m it. Look at me. I shine.”

Tiffany’s like, “I’m it. Look at me. I shine.”

In the first one, the hearer assumes that the quoted material represents Tiffany’s exact words – or, more precisely, the speaker’s attempts to repeat what Tiffany said verbatim. In the second, there is no claim that Tiffany actually said those words. It is more likely that it was Tiffany’s attitude – possibly as conveyed through her facial expression, her posture, her comments – that the speaker wished to characterize.

Sometimes the like quotative is used to express an “inner monologue,” representing what the speaker thought to herself/himself but did not actually say aloud. It’s not likely that the speakers in the following examples actually said the material they present with the like quotative:

I was so disgusted when the last one was stolen that I was like, “I’m not going to put another one in.”

He walked in, and I was like, “Oh, no, I am not seeing this!”

I’m like, “What is his problem?”

Then they all graduated, so I was like, “What am I gonna do now?”

All of these examples would work with “I thought” or even “I’m thinking,” but not with “I said.”

Another difference between the like quotative and say is that, unlike say, the like quotative can be used to convey non-speech sounds, facial expressions, and body language:

And like, I come outta nowhere, I'm like , [speaker mimes use of aerosol can as blowtorch, with sound effects].

He’s like, [speaker makes a goofy face].

And they'd be like, [speaker waves her arms in the air].

(None of these sentence works if say is substituted for the like quotative.)

Simply stated, the difference between say and the like quotative is that, while say expresses an attempt to represent speech verbatim, the like quotative tries to convey the sense of an utterance.  If say expresses the “letter” of an utterance, like expresses its “spirit.” Thus, the like quotative is not simply a new way to say say.  Because it represents something new – not just a new word for signaling constructed dialogue, but a word that makes a different claim from say about the literalness of what it reports – the like quotative seems likely to become a permanent part of American English vernacular speech.

2. Is the like quotative a part of English grammar now?

The like quotative has become a part of the English of virtually all native speakers of American English under the age of forty.  As such, it can be said to be part of the grammar of English. (Note that “grammar” here refers to the language that speakers use, not to the language that prescriptivists tell them they should use.) Still, while the frequency with which young speakers in particular use the like quotative might lead one to the conclusion that the construction has become a fully integrated part of American English, there continue to be some limits on its occurrence.  For example, there is nothing unusual about the occurrence of say in a negative construction or in a question:

When people ask what I do, I don't say, “I own a store.”

Did he say, “You’re cute”?

On the other hand, while the like quotative is possible in these two sentences,

When people ask what I do, I’m not like, “I own a store.”

Was he like, “You’re cute”?

Speakers still use the say variant in sentences like these most of the time. Further, it is only younger speakers (those under 25) who are likely to use the like quotative here at all. Speakers over 25 – even if they use the like quotative frequently – are not likely to use it in negative or interrogative constructions. Inasmuch as younger speakers are now using the like quotative more and more in these situations, it seems likely that in the future the like quotative will take over from say in these sites too.

3. Where did the like quotative come from?

In the 1940's or so, a new quotative appears to have come into American English, namely go.

He goes, “Do you know the make and the model of your phone?”

She goes to me, “By the way, do you have the tickets?”

At some point, probably in the 1970's but possibly a decade earlier, people started using the like quotative. Even before that, people were using like followed by dialogue in two contexts, both of which built on the sense in which like means “approximately.” In one, the quoted material is either meant to be approximate or is meant to be a single example of a set of similar statements:

I said something like, “I know this is not the best time in the world, but will you marry me?” (NY Post)

During that night's show, he said things like, “Come on Tracy, you only have one life to live.” (NY Post)

In the other context, like corresponds to “as if to say”:

We looked at each other like, “Where did everybody go?”

When you hear the title, a mischievous grin comes to your face, like, “Ooh, what’s gonna happen,” and then the comedy ensues. (NY Post)

From sentences like these, it does not seem like a big step to “it’s like,” i.e. “it’s as if to say”:

It’s like, “Don’t be so public about it, people.”

It’s like, “Let’s go to the town board meeting, it’s more exciting than Monday night wrestling.” (NY Times)

Changing from “it’s like” to “I’m like” or “they’re like” may be a bigger jump. Kathleen Ferrara and Barbara Bell suggest that the like quotative first appeared with speakers reporting inner monologues and using it to call attention to highly dramatic utterances. (Ferrara and Bell don’t link the development of the like quotative to the “it’s like”type of sentence.) From being used only in unusual cases, the like quotative came with remarkable rapidity to be the everyday quotative for young speakers.

4. How did the like quotative spread from the US to other countries?

A study of Australian newspapers gives some suggestion of how, once the like quotative was part of American English, might have spread to other countries. When Australian newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald first started quoting people who were using the like quotative,

the speakers were most often American, especially people associated with Hollywood and with American genres of pop music, like Kirsten Dunst and Britney Spears.

It’s like, “I’m 19. You know?”  (Kirsten Dunst)

The nanny was like, “Tell her what?” (Britney Spears)

Then the papers started quoting Australians and Britons using the like quotative, but the people being quoted tended themselves to be actors or pop musicians.

My wife’s like, “Where’s Leopold?” (Hugh Jackman)

It’s like, “They’re just normal, they just talk like ordinary people.” (a member of the Australian band Lash)

Only later did the Australian papers start quoting a whole range of younger Australians using the like quotative, as illustrated by these examples, the first from a 21-year-old swimmer and the second from a 30-year-old farmer who lives outside a small town 150 miles from Melbourne:

It was like, “I don't really want to swim this.”

We were at the VFF (Victorian Farmers Federation) Annual Conference the other day, and Livestock president Simon Ramsay walked past us and was like, “Oh, the McLeods.”

The crucial step in the importation of a grammatical feature like this seems to be the middle one, when it goes from being used only by people from somewhere else (even if they have high status) to being used by members of one’s own community. In the Australian case at least, the connection between global pop culture and the like quotative probably facilitated its importation into local speech. Whether that connection remains or, instead, speakers just come to view it as one more feature of Australian youthspeak (or of Australian English more generally) remains to be seen.

5. Is the like quotative here to stay?

The rapidity with which the like quotative has spread throughout American English and through much of the rest of the world has led the sociolinguist William Labov to call it a “tsunami.” It has gone in a quarter of a century from being virtually unknown to being the primary way for expressing speech for millions of younger Americans. Does that mean that it is here to stay? Although go was never so pervasive as like as a quotative, it was widely used and now it seems to be receding. (The place where go seems strongest is when its subject is she or he, as the examples presented earlier.) Just as the like quotative has largely pushed go out, so the all quotative may one day push the like quotative out.

Then, after a while, I was all, “See you later, good luck!”

And my sister’s all, “It's sooooooo weird. The teachers are actually talking to us.”

He was all, “I don’t know.”

The use of the all quotative is apparently greatest in California. It seems to be the case that many highly salient features of American English today, particularly those that are associated with youth, originated in California and then spread to the rest of the country. To date, the all quotative is apparently only widespread in California and neighboring states. It is a fact about language that it is always changing. From that perspective, neither the like quotative nor any other construction is certain to be a part of English forever.

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Buchstaller, Isabelle. “He Goes and I’m Like: The New Quotatives Revisited” Internet Proceedings of the University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Conference, 2002. (PDF)
  • Ferrara, Kathleen, and Barbara Bell. Sociolinguistic variation and discourse function of constructed dialogue introducers: “The Case of Be + Like,” American Speech 70 (1995): 265-90.
  • Romaine, Suzanne, and Deborah Lange.“The Use of Like as a Marker of Reported Speech and Thought” American Speech 66 (1991): 227-78.
  • Singler, John Victor. “Why You Can’t Do a VARBRUL Study of Quotatives and What Such a Study Can Show Us” Selected Papers from NWAV 29. Penn Working Papers in Linguistics 7.3 (2001):257-78.
  • Tagliamonte, Sali, and Rachel Hudson.“Be Like et al. Beyond America: The Quotative System in Canadian and British Youth” Journal of Sociolinguistics 3 (1999):147-72.
  • Tannen, Deborah. “Introducing Constructed Dialogue in Greek and American Conversation and Literary Narrative” Direct and Indirect Speech, ed. by Florian Coulmas, Amsterdam:Gruyter, (1986): 311-32.
  • Winter, Joanne.“Discourse Quotatives in Australian English: Adolescents Performing Voices” Australian Journal of Linguistics 22 (2002): 5-21.
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  1. Unless otherwise noted, the examples come from data collected by students in the “Language and Society” class at New York University; I am grateful to them for its use. The discussion of like in Australian newspapers comes from Laurie Woods; it was contained in a paper that she and I presented jointly at the New Ways of Analyzing Variation meeting held at Stanford University in October, 2002. My thinking on like has been enriched by the work of Isabelle Buchstaller of the University of Edinburgh.

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