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

Via Melissa Lowenstein
on Jul 23, 2013
get elephant's newsletter

woman holding picture with big smile

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.


Like elephant journal on Facebook.


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. Melissa says:

    Heidi – yes, after writing this, I noticed that men do this too, especially young men. You're right that it is more than an issue about self-oppressing females, and you hit the nail on the head with your other thoughts on this. Thanks for your insights.

  8. Melissa says:

    Suzi, I hear you that this comes off condescending and judgmental. I FELT that way when I started to think about this topic. Who am I to tell other people how to talk? But the more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that if we humans are going to go to the trouble of communicating with each other, we might choose to do it in a conscious way. And by calling attention to the (in my opinion) overuse of "like" I'm hoping to help people check this out with themselves and see whether they are enacting an unconscious pattern that they might want to shift. Of course we can choose to speak however we like, but there is a cultural process of indoctrination that happens to every one of us, and part of maturation as a whole human being is to see that happening and become more 'choiceful' about how we communicate and relate to others. Thanks for your comment!

  9. 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'.

  10. Aria says:

    Thank you, Suzi. My thoughts exactly!

  11. Maresy says:

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

  12. 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.

  13. mayayonika says:

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

  14. Nunh says:

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

    correct another person’s speech.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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

  18. Ryan says:

    I am a man of 39 years old and I have been using "like, etc." too much for too long. I've been struggling with it and I notice it more and more in others, and as much as possible in myself. I can tell you right now, I never made a choice to speak the way I do, though I have made a choice to try to improve my speech and stop saying "like" so uselessly and so often. I'll admit, it has started to irritate me more and more over the last few years. While this article may have it's faults, I think it is an important one just the same, and I think her aim is a positive one. I don't think she's trying to be judgmental, condescending, or oppressive. I think she's trying to get to the bottom of this slip into what is becoming a poor use of language and an inability to communicate with full presence, focus, attention, intelligence and clarity. I've been trying to figure out for a while where this habit came from, how it developed. It is clearly a learned bad habit of more recent generations. The stereotypical valley girl/surfer dude lingo has spread like a virus – like, totally, dude! (I surf/skate 🙂
    Bottom line – if you think any of us who overuse "like, etc" made a conscious choice to pepper our communication with this nonsensical filler, I think you are very wrong. I know that I did not, and nobody I know who speaks this way did either. I do know that people sometimes get defensive, because they don't want to be corrected, don't want to be made aware of their poor use of language and communication style. It is difficult to correct bad habits, and because so many of us have been speaking this way without a thought for so long, it is a very ingrained bad habit, and not easy to correct. But ultimately, I think we can be made aware, give it some thought, and try to better ourselves, and in the process, more fully utilize our amazing brains. I really don't think there's anything wrong with trying to bring this issue out into the open. Luckily, I do not write the way I talk, so this will (hopefully) not be a nightmare to read. If I did write the way I talk, I would not want to read this myself. This must have something to do with speed – when writing, I have time to think and organize my thoughts – when I talk, not so much. I am a fairly nervous person and have a much harder time organizing my thoughts as well when speaking. These are some of the issues, I'm sure there are others. I still don't know all of the issues behind this bad habit, but I agree with Melissa that some of them are deeper, core issues, such as the ones she mentions in her article. I think it is very important that we all start to think about these issues and try to work on them together. I think this article does come from a place of love. She wants a world of peace. She is trying to open our minds. The way we use our language these days seems to reflect just how much love and peace have been lacking in our world. I believe this connection can be made on some level. Let's all try to slow down a bit, listen, think and hear. Let us open our minds, try to understand ourselves, learn, so that we really can choose to speak the way we would like to.

  19. Ryan says:

    Yes! Thank you, Jennifer! Exactly. I don't know why so many people seem to think it's a bad thing to point out or help someone when they're clearly doing something not so right. We all make mistakes, we all need to learn, and some things take more time and practice to get good at or do correctly. This is just part of life. It's also important to teach why caring about doing things well is important (especially, as you have pointed out, our use of language). If people don't know what they're missing, they think they aren't missing anything at all!

  20. The excessive use of "like" is not comparable to African American English, which is more than capable of erudite, confident expression. I agree that an unapologetic woman, or man for that matter, might nevertheless use "like" frequently. Yet that you call it valley "girl" talk seems to me to indicate that there is something quite gender-specific worth observing. Ultimately, I reckon it's more to do with how we use words than which words we use.