Shibboleth Alert: Use "Like" Only as a Preposition, Not as a Conjunction
by Tina Blue
November 25, 2002
In Judges (12:4-6), the pronunciation of the word shibboleth, meaning "stream" in Hebrew, was used as a test to distinguish the Gileadites from the Ephraimites, who pronounced it sibboleth. From this history we derive the word's meaning as a custom or usage regarded as a criterion for distinguishing members of a particular group. One who violates a shibboleth is thus betrayed as an outsider by his unsanctioned usage.
When the "in" group considers itself both superior and exclusive, then violation of a shibboleth is seen as a mark of inferiority, and anyone wishing to avoid being labeled that way needs to be aware of such shibboleths and to avoid running afoul of the rules that govern them.
English grammar is a veritable minefield of shibboleths (yeah, this is rather a funny mixed metaphor if you consider the literal meanings of these words). The self-appointed grammar police (SAGP)* are always seeking an opportunity to sneer at someone for violating rules of grammar and usage, even those "rules" that aren't really rules at all.
When a false "rule" leads to a lot of obviously bad sentences, then I will go to war against it. For example, in my articles defending the propriety of putting prepositions at the ends of sentences,** I offer an explanation of why that "rule" isn't really a rule, as well as testimony from recognized authorities.
Because the idea that prepositions are not allowed at the ends of sentences is both widespread and unquestionably wrong, and because we so often run into sentences that absolutely need those final prepositions, I encourage my readers to stop writing (and speaking) ugly, contorted sentences in an attempt to avoid violating that false rule. Some ignorant people still view the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence as a shibboleth, but I am ready to shout them down and if necessary bludgeon them with the words of any number of recognized grammatical authorities. In this case, the fight is definitely worth the effort and the risk. What risk, you might ask. Well, one irate reader wrote to tell me that I have no right to hold myself up as an expert, and indeed I "go too far" when I question such "rules."
But when a widespread shibboleth is one that a writer can easily avoid running afoul of, and when those who might be in a position to pass judgment on his writing are almost certain to be in thrall to a belief in the rule involved, then I suggest that my readers play the coward to avoid triggering an attack from the SAGP.
For example, comma splices are not always errors (see "When Is a Comma Splice NOT an Error?"). And yet I would not willingly use a comma splice, simply because splices are easy to avoid, and guaranteed to be seen as errors--really big errors--by a significant number of readers. I may know more about grammar and usage than such a reader, but if I will not be in a position to defend my properly used comma splice, I will have set myself up to be shot down as an "illiterate." (The SAGP are pretty harsh, you know.)
All this is preliminary to a warning against violating a shibboleth that an awful lot of people violate these days, but that the SAGP absolutely will not forgive.
Here is the rule: Always use "like" as a preposition, never as a subordinating conjunction.
Historically, "like" has often been used as a subordinating conjunction, but in formal modern usage it is considered a definite no-no. The use of "like" as a conjunction had pretty nearly disappeared among the educated public, until a famous cigarette ad declared, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should!"
The media have so popularized this once forbidden usage that one now hears it (and reads it) almost everywhere. But although it has become generally accepted in colloquial speech and informal writing, it is still considered questionable in formal writing. Anyone who wishes to be taken seriously as a writer needs to be very careful about unnecessarily violating this particular shibboleth, because it is seen by most teachers and editors not only as an error, but as another one of those really big errors.
Here are some examples of "like" used as a subordinating conjunction, along with corrected versions of the sentences.
~My face felt likeit had been set on fire.
My face felt as if ithad been set on fire.
My face felt as though it had been set on fire.
~In college the teachers don't spoonfeed you the material like the teachers in high school do.
In college the teachers don't spoonfeed you the material,asthe teachers in high school do
In college the teachers don't spoonfeed you the material the way the teachers in high school do.
~When I was a freshman I studied like my life depended on it.
When I was a freshman I studiedas ifmy life depended on it.
When I was a freshman I studied as though my life depended on it.
~Some people with only a modest income try to live like they were millionaires.
Some people with only a modest income try to live as if they were millionaires.
Some people with only a modest income try to live as though they were millionaires.
~We're going to party like it's 1999.
Leave this one alone. It belongs to the rock musician Prince, and no one thinks popular song lyrics are supposed to read as ifthey were written by an English teacher.
Leave this one alone. It belongs to the rock musician Prince, and no one thinks popular song lyrics are supposed to read as thoughthey were written by an English teacher.(Hah! I got the proper subordinating conjunctions in by way of the comment.)
I am not particularly offended by the use of "like" as a conjunction, but as I have said, it is a shibboleth, and therefore I forbid my students to use it that way. They are, after all, students, which means that no one is going to give them the benefit of the doubt, and the SAGP are always out there, just waiting for a chance to pounce.
In fact, I would never violate this particular shibboleth myself, for the same reason I would never write a comma splice, even where it would be correct, and even where it would be rhetorically effective. If I were to write a comma splice, the person reading my prose might be one of the many, many people who are convinced that comma splices are signs of hopeless ignorance, and I would not be there to defend my usage.
The same goes for using "like" as a conjunction. It has a respectable history of being used as a conjunction, and it is commonly used that way in informal speech and writing today. But it is not commonly used that way in the formal writing of educated people, and so I will not risk my reputation for it. The fact is, it is quite simple to avoid using "like" as a conjunction, just as it is to avoid comma splices.
Therefore I do avoid violating these shibboleths, and so should you.
*Guess what! The Self-Appointed Grammar Police (SAGP) now have their own website (click here). Mike Taylor has set up a tongue-in-cheek site that deals with grammar and usage errors committed not by private individuals, but by those who write for the public and really should know better. His "case studies" provide examples of real-life errors that can serve as object lessons for those who want to avoid making errors of a similar type and thus risking arrest by the SAGP.