What's not to like about 'like'?

Does memory of an old advertising jingle keep people from using a perfectly good preposition?

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Newport and Camel cigarettes are stacked on a shelf inside a tobacco store in New York.

Last week this space was devoted to an old rule that seems to be holding better than expected – avoiding like as a conjunction, at least in writing.

This week I’ll make a complementary point: It is OK to use like as a preposition.

Prepositions establish relationships: I’m on the train. His work is below standard. The house is at the end of the street. The relationship that like sets up is one of similarity: “He looks like his father.” 

The other day, though, this sentence came my way: “As with any application, this should be tested.” Hmm, maybe: “Like any application, this should be tested.” (Trust me, “this” was “an application.”) After all, we “omit needless words,” right?

So if like does the job, why not use it?

In the bad old days, just about every living, breathing American was exposed to the advertising jingle “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

Teed-off grammarians could argue that “as a cigarette should” has the same rhyme and rhythm. But the jingle was evidently meant to be idiomatic, “the way real people talk.” 

Nowadays fewer people smoke, and in far fewer places. Maybe we really have come a long way, baby.

But like as a conjunction – as in that jingle – is alive and well in colloquial usage. Lots of “real people,” including those with advanced degrees and carpets in their offices, use it every day. 

Perhaps because of incompletely assimilated grammar lessons, a fair number of people seem to avoid like as a preposition in writing, as in the “application” example. It’s rather the way children who remember being corrected for saying “Me and Jimmy want ice cream” grow up to say things like “It’s been hard for Sally and I.”

Along with “as with,” such writers resort to “similar to,” which has its uses but largely falls afoul of the “omit needless words” rule.

It’s OK to like like.

And by the way, does like, the preposition, have anything to do with like the adjective, or the verb? The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that all three come from a Germanic base conveying the idea of “body, form; like, same.”

The adjective, rare today, came first: “He gave his son $100 and a like sum to his daughter.” Way back when (into the 17th century), people used liker and likest to cover, one surmises, closer resemblances. But like morphed into a preposition: It all but cried out for an object.

On another track, our verb like grew out of an Old English verb meaning “to please, to be sufficient.” The underlying idea was of “being like,” of “having the same body.” We like (verb) things that are like (adjective) unto ourselves, or simply like (preposition) ourselves – that metaphorically “have the same body.”

It’s OK to like – and use – like.

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