Seems Like a Song You've Heard Before

A writer for The Washington Post was commenting on the famous Glass House of architect Philip Johnson: "Even at the level of its mechanical system," he wrote, "the two-house dyad seems like a metaphor."

In The New York Times, the greatly gifted Gail Collins ducked away from a tough topic: "I would love to give you all the arguments about the virtues of the Law of the Sea Treaty, but it seems like a cruel thing to do."

Three weeks ago another writer for the Times, Carol Vogel, covered an auction of high-priced paintings. They were the work of "masters like Matisse, Signac and Pissarro."  

In Time magazine, reporter Bill Saporito wrote about Wal-Mart: Most of its worst-performing stores were located "in big coastal cities like Boston and Los Angeles." The chain’s marketing strategy "is better suited to developing economies like Mexico, Brazil and China than to mature markets like the U.S. and Japan."

Like, like, like! Properly employed, it’s a lovable little word. The compliant Polonius saw a cloud "like" a weasel. Hamlet mourned his father: "I shall not look upon his like again." Martial confessed an irrational prejudice: "I do not like you, Sabidius!" Whether as noun, verb, adjective, adverb or preposition, "like" functions like a good Scout knife. We may use it anywhere.

More to the point, "like" gets dragooned into service where it ought to be excused. Even from the pen of Gail Collins, things shouldn’t "seem like." Things simply seem.

It’s as a conjunction that "like" is most widely abused. Nine times out of 10, "such as" would better serve a writer’s purpose. In the Horrid Examples just cited, we’re not learning about masters like Matisse or cities like Boston or economies like Mexico’s or markets like Japan’s. These are examples. "Like" doesn’t work well in these constructions because the first, immediate understanding of "like" in context is as a comparative: Scott’s love was "like a red, red rose." John Dos Passos wrote of "frail clouds like milkweed floss." The Yankees are like the Red Sox, only of course they weren’t.

The editors of Merriam-Webster, in one of their permissive fits, take a benign view of "like." They say, "There is no doubt that after 600 years of use, conjunctive ‘like’ is firmly established. It has been used by many prestigious literary figures of the past, though perhaps not in their most elevated works. In modern use it may be found in literature, journalism, and scholarly writing. While the present objection to it is perhaps more heated than rational, someone writing in a formal prose style may well prefer to use ‘as, as if, such as’ or an entirely different construction instead."

Bah! Humbug! On this point of usage, I am much more rational than heated. All I’m suggesting is that you writers think twice before committing to the slovenly "like" when a tidy "such as" may be easily employed. You may find a splendid example in the work of a stringer for The Washington Post. A few weeks ago she wrote of Democratic electoral victories "in such places as Arlington County and Alexandria." Not "places like"! Places "such as"!

Two words often are better than one. Two weeks ago the Eugene (Ore.) Register Guard carried an item from the Associated Press that began, "The birth of a baby orca in Puget Sound this week makes the fourth calf born this year." Reader Phil Schnabel pounced: "Aren’t all orcas born as babies?" Well, yes, the adjectival "baby" was redundant, but this was a B.R., that is, a Benign Redundancy. Only a heartless copy editor would kill it.