I don’t think I pick up tricks of speech from Veronica, but I noticed last week Madonna, who is 53 going on 23, echoing her daughter Lourdes, aged 14. Lourdes was complaining of her mother’s dress sense, as daughters do: ‘Every day, I’ll be like, “Mom, you can’t wear that”.’ Her mother spoke in the same interview (in the Mirror, as it happens) about how busy she was: ‘Every other day, it’s like, “What am I doing? This is insane.” ’
I find this habit annoying, but it can hardly be called ungrammatical. The grammar is clear if of recent origin. The little Thespian interlude of direct speech is introduced by like as an indicator that the speaker is incapable of summoning up an appropriate adjective (disapproving, say, or hectic).
No, of the misuses of like, I find strangest those that supplant as. ‘Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya is under pressure like never before,’ said Matthew Price of the BBC from Tripoli. I am not criticising the brave and accomplished Mr Price. His spontaneous usage merely indicates how things are changing. Before an adverb such as never, we’d ordinarily expect as.
In speech, syntax often wanders. Consider this, caught by Helen Brown in an interview in the Telegraph with Zach Condon, the singer with the band Beirut. Talking of place-names, he said: ‘Although I am interested in linguistic origins, it’s really just the sounds of them. Like when you look at those high-fashion carrier bags which list the names of the cities where they have stores — oh, I just think, “What beautiful names!” ’
It would have sounded ridiculous if he had said ‘as when you look’. The grammar might have been mended in several ways. He might have said: ‘like those high-fashion carrier bags’, or ‘like looking at those’, ‘when you look at’. But in conversation such little lurches are normal. From speech they find their way into writing.
We have been here before. Zach’s incoherence is no different from the anacoluthia that characterised the use of like in the 16th century. Shakespeare did it in Pericles: ‘Like an arrow shot from a well experienst Archer hits the marke his eye doth levell at.’ I don’t suppose it gave him a sleepless night.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 27, 2011