Monday, April 05, 2004

Ooh, Baby, You Know What I'm Like

Doug, age 5, routinely says things like this (and has been doing so for a couple of years):
(1) He was like, “Why’d you do that?” That’s what he was like, Daddy.
Now I am a fluent user of the like of reported speech or thought, and will often utter sentences like the first one in (1). But the second one? No way. At least, not with this meaning of like. For me, what he was like can only mean “what he was similar to” or “what kind of person he was.”

The second sentence in (1) is an example of one kind of “extraction,” in which the object of a verb or preposition or some other word does not appear in its ordinary position, instead appearing nearer the front of the sentence. Here are some examples of extraction which just about every speaker of English could say, with the ordinary position for the extracted object indicated by the __, and extracted object itself underlined:
(2) Topicalization: (I didn’t see Glen, but) Neal, I saw __.
Question: Who did you see __?
Cleft: It was Neal that I saw __.
Free relative: That’s what I saw __.
What Doug has done in (1) is to use the like of reported speech/thought in a free relative construction, precisely along the lines of That’s what I saw in (2). Just as what corresponds to the missing direct object of saw here, what corresponds to the missing reported speech/thought following like in (1). I’ve also heard him make questions with like (What was he like? meaning, “What was his reaction?”), though I haven’t heard him do topicalizations or clefts with it.

Why is extraction with like so natural for Doug and so wrong for me? My gut feeling is that the like of reported speech or thought is just different from ordinary verbs, prepositions, or even adjectives. It's even different from the truly adjectival like, which I can extract from just fine:
(3) A cold fish is what he was like __.
But why is it different? How? The only thing I can put my finger on is that this usage of like is a late addition to my grammar, and feels different stylistically from everything else. Doug, however, hears this like without any of the baggage that I have, and quite rationally subjects it to the same extraction rule that other verbs and verb-like words or phrases are subject to. In this way, the slippery slope event I referred to in my last posting has come to pass. I predict we will all hear a lot more of sentences like (1) as members of Doug's cohort grow up.

The difference between Doug's like and mine becomes even more radically apparent when he says stuff like this:
(4) I was like, just about to win, is what I was like.
Good heavens! Now he's gone too far! Not only does he subject to extraction the like of reported speech/thought , he dares to do it with the conversational-hedge like! Muffy Siegel did a well-publicized study on this use of like, but even she says she hasn't heard anything like (4).

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