“Can I go get my textbook?” Monica asked me recently. “It’s like in my locker.”
“Where is it really?” I asked her.
Anyone who spends much time with teenagers has noticed their unfortunate use of the word “like” outside the parameters of affection or comparison. As a high school teacher, I probably hear more than 100 superfluous “likes” per day.
“Do you have like a pencil I can borrow?” Craig asked me.
I handed him a ball-point pen.
“But I need a pencil!” he exclaimed.
“You asked for something like a pencil,” I replied.
Feeling duty-bound to correct this embarrassing linguistic lapse, I tried to humorously illustrate to students how silly they sound when they, like, speak this way.
My approach didn’t work, though. Consider the response I got from Jessica, who described her family’s trip to Washington, D.C.
“My favorite part was when we went to see, like, the Supreme Court,” Jessica said.
“I thought you saw the real Supreme Court,” I chided her.
Jessica stared at me, puzzled. “That’s what I said,” she retorted.
So I decided to up the ante with some of my sophomores who seem especially grammatically challenged. I offered to award ten extra points each to their final exam scores if they could make it until the end of the term without more than ten extra-grammatical “likes.”
Drew, pessimistic about the group’s chances but eager for the extra credit, instantly devised a strategy to get the points.
“Nobody say anything from now on!” he ordered his classmates, who broke out in laughter.
They agreed to try, though. That day I noticed a girl named Tiffani stop and furrow her brow as she thought through an entire sentence before speaking.
“What do we have for homework this week?” Tiffani asked slowly, in possibly the most grammatical sentence she’s spoken this term. Then she sighed in relief, and cried, “That was so hard!”
Our resident wiseacre Harris tried his best to set off my alarm.
“I like … that video we watched, Mr. J,” he said with a smirk.
“Not bad,” I told him.
But ultimately they didn’t win the points. Some students quickly forgot the challenge and slipped back into old habits, and others deliberately sabotaged the experiment for a joke. “Like, we’re never gonna make it!” cracked John.
They needed to last 15 days until the fall semester ended. They reached their tenth “like” on the first day in about 15 minutes.
I was sorry they didn’t at least make it interesting, and offered to let them try again with more favorable rules.
“Forget it, Mr. J,” said one. “It’s like impossible.”
Los Angeles Times, 2002