To Young Women Who Pepper Their Speech with “Like.”

Via Melissa Lowenstein
on Jul 23, 2013
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I recently heard a young woman speak at length, and she spoke just like this:

“I, like, think that maybe, um, I don’t know, I like might want to go here. Or like maybe if I were feeling, like, okay about this I, like, might want to sort of go there. You know?”

She was interlacing her speech with “like,” “sort of,” and “you know” at a pace of roughly three occurrences per sentence. Most of these occurrences were misuses of the word “like.”

Like: preposition: having the same characteristics or qualities as; similar to. Conjunction: in the same way that. Noun: used with reference to a person or thing of the same kind as another, or the things one likes or prefers. Adjective: having similar qualities or characteristics to another person or thing. Adverb: Used in speech as a meaningless filler or to signify the speaker’s uncertainty about an expression just used. Verb: find agreeable, enjoyable or satisfactory.

Sure, sometimes when I speak I toss one of those useless, lifeless “likes” in—a placeholder, a refusal to allow for a silence or a breath or any other possibility of a pause. I try very hard not to. Occasionally one of those babies slips out.

This was another animal entirely. This girl’s language was nigh unto unintelligible. I had to strain to sieve out the words that had meaning. It became painful to hear her speak.

I looked around. Did anyone else notice? They didn’t seem to.

I studied her. Did she know she was doing it?  When I could parse meaning from the word salad tumbling from her mouth, and when I heard others who had known her reflecting on other things she had said, I knew she wasn’t dumb. She was bright, and deep and sensitive.

Since then I’ve noticed it in the speech of many a 20-something. It’s much worse than I remember it from my own young days. Every “like” hits me like a stinging pebble flung up from a spinning set of tires on a dirt road. Little shocks, over and over, like a dog being trained with the shock collar.

“So like I…” Ouch.

And she’s like all like, ‘What?’” Ouch. Ouch!

My heart hurt for that lovely young person. I didn’t know her well enough to pull her aside and give her some motherly advice. If I had, it might have gone something like this:

Every time you drop a meaningless qualifier into your speech, you are apologizing. Stop it.

Stop apologizing for opening your mouth.

Stop worrying that if you pause, take a breath, or think while speaking, someone will be uncomfortable, perhaps even you.

Be uncomfortable instead of apologizing

Every single time you weave in a useless “like,” you are suggesting that you’re not talking about the real thing, but a facsimile, and that you know you are doing this.

Every single time you drop a “you know” into the words you are using precious breath to suggest that if I don’t already know what you’re saying before you say it, it wasn’t worth saying.

Every single time you slip a “sort of” in before an adjective or a verb, you suggest—again—that what you are describing isn’t quite real. It’s sort of real.

In essence you are holding up a big, messy handwritten sign that says, “Please disregard everything I’m saying.”

Did you ever notice that men do not speak that way?

Here, I would pause to watch the dawning recognition—the rage that will surely bubble up if she recognizes that, despite all assurances that women are equal to men in all ways that matter, we are acting as our own oppressors when we apologize with every other word we speak.

We don’t need men to do it for us. And really, they don’t. Not most of them here in civilized society, not anymore. They are not the bad guys here.

We do it to ourselves.

We do it by spending inordinate sums on cosmetics, clothing, and women’s magazines in order to make ourselves more pleasing to men. We do it by giggling at the end of our sentences, or sometimes even in the middle.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t. Don’t mind me. I’m sorry. Am I bothering you? My voice is. Excuse me. I’m just for looking at.”

For God’s sake, I’d say to her.

Eradicate those useless syllables

like you’d eradicate an army of ants in your kitchen. 

One at a time, if you have to.

For God’s sake,

use your words to create and share

a clear expression of what you think,

what you believe,

who you are.

Be wrong, then change your mind. 

You get to do that as often as you like. 

The world needs your clarity,

your unapologetic voice,

your beautiful spirit carried on your words.


This is an emergency.


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Assist. Ed: Linda Jockers/Ed: Brianna Bemel


About Melissa Lowenstein

Melissa Lynn Lowenstein writes, mothers, dances, works for a non-profit, practices yoga, and goes outside as much as possible. Photo credit: Kathee Miller.


20 Responses to “To Young Women Who Pepper Their Speech with “Like.””

  1. maliniaz says:

    I do agree with what you are saying! I too have noticed such use of "like" and "you know?" in women friends and felt rather upset why in such a way, someone talks? For myself I have started correcting my speech at least while leaving my voice message over the phone. I listen to my message before sending .
    (though, I do not have this "like" and/or "you know?" syndrome, I sound weak by not using correct words to express what I want to convey, but I have now improved a lot.
    Thanks for raising this topic for improving image of "women" in general.

  2. Aella says:

    I never thought of it an an oppression/apologizing for speaking thing. Occasionally I will add a few useless "likes" in my sentences. I knew it was a confidence issue. I do it a lot with other words, thank you for pointing me in the right direction for as to why I might be doing this. :)

  3. Frank says:

    Melissa, I couldn't pass up reading your post after reading the headline. The overuse and misuse of the word "like" is one of my pet peeves, along with a list of other grammatical transgressions, but that is another story. My observation is that it isn't just the 20 something females that are guilty of this, but I would add 30 somethings, as well as males too. I hope this vernacular fades away just as bell bottoms and tie dye, but somehow I'm not so sure that is going to happen.

  4. Heidi says:

    While I wholeheartedly agree with what you have written, I do find it interesting you pin this "like" tendency on solely females. I also realize that you are making a greater statement about the behavior of young women than just their speech, but just the other day I interrupted my boyfriend with, "I'm sorry, everything you are saying is great, but you have got to stop saying like so much!". I believe that this "like" epidemic is more than just an issue of self-oppressing females. I believe it is a reflection of a generation that finds it difficult to form a concrete opinion, to truly believe in something, because we are so overwhelmed with information. We have lost trust in our own minds because we rarely sit and contemplate in them. That being said, what you have to say about female culture in this article is spot on!

  5. Suzi says:

    The attitude of the article is so judgmental and condescending that I am surprised it's on this magazine. :( People aren't better than others because of the speech they choose to use. And we certainly aren't better than the younger generations. We should be teaching them an attitude of love, not judgement.

    We are all allowed to speak how we want and that young woman will change her speech if she ever wants to and when she is ready. Until then, you don't have to listen.

    I've heard young women and men as well as older women and men use these words, and even excessively. The world is a very diverse place. Hopefully we can all learn to expand our minds more and be more accepting. That is what love and peace are all about.

  6. acha2010 says:

    As a parent of a 13-year old girl thank you for writing this article. She uses "like" so much in her conversation that I find myself picking up the habit. Her dad and I have both asked her if she is even aware that she does it and she says no and I don't know why I say it. This is very helpful as a tool for us to help guide her to stop using 'like' inappropriately.

  7. Antlers says:

    The author needs to take an Anthropology of Language class to understand why 'like' is making it's way into language and why it isn't a bad thing. It's quite interesting actually, and even creative. Let's stop being so judgmental and cherish what other humans say, like, even if it's, like, colored with 'Likes'.

  8. Maresy says:

    Antlers, can you explain briefly why "like" is making it's way into our language? I'm interested. Really.

  9. Erica Bee says:

    Thank you for this much needed reminder. I fall under the category of young 20-something year old women that overuse the word “like”. I have also been told in the past that it can be difficult to listen to me speak at times. Although it was a little embarrassing to have this reoccurring nuisance in my speech brought to my attention by my partner, I’m grateful. I now catch myself in the midst of a “like” rolling off of my tongue and notice myself using it less often. As with most habits, replacing “like” and feeling more confident in expressing my thoughts is a practice.

  10. mayayonika says:

    Anters, would you be willing to expand on that comment, and kind of, like.. explain and articulate your point, please?

  11. Nunh says:

    I do care for the unnecessary use of “like” but, who am I to judge or

    correct another person’s speech.

  12. Mom of 3 Girls says:

    I have three extremely bright and confident daughters, (late teens, early 20's) and many of their friends around a lot. I have mentioned this to them and they become afraid to have conversations in front of me. I don't quite know how to re-approach this; I'm just glad that someone else notices this very annoying habit. I was curious the other day, so I counted the number of times the word "like" was used in a less then 5 minute conversation. The # of times? 72! Seriously! I'm not a good Mother if I don't help them break this habit. I need to figure out a way to help them without them leaving the room every time they want to talk to each other or to their friends. Thank you for posting this and validating my feelings about what I believe to be a very bad habit.

  13. Hillary Rose says:

    I agree to this post with some extent. However, another part of me — the linguist– has to recognize that this "valley girl" talk is just another a dialect. Just as we shouldn't discourage or look down on African American English, neither should we look down on the way middle class white girls talk. And I know many girls who are *not* apologizing for what they are saying, it is an unconscious way of speaking they have picked up from their peers. If she were speaking in a context, say giving an oral presentation at school, yes she should probably have more conviction in her rhetoric. But if she is talking with her peers, who speak the same way — don't pity her or try to change her.

  14. Jennifer says:

    OH COME ON. SINCE when do excuse a lack of skill as a cultural norm? It only serves to dumb down what we expect of young people. Words open doors and the lack of words to describe our truths and feelings close doors.
    I work with teens and encourage them to learn words to describe and animate their lives instead of zoning out on the narrow language choices fed to them by the "reality" shallow media.
    Knowledge is power. Never say to me that I what I haven't learned is a norm. I don't want to be that.
    I want excellence and choose to see each young person as a treasure who needs more support. Go LOWENSTEIN

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