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01/22/01: Like and As

Which of these sentences are correct?

1. Winston tastes good like a cigarette should. (Remember that famous ad jingle?)
2. He spends money like there is no tomorrow.
3. He lied on the witness stand, like one would expect a guilty person to do.
4. My cousin looks like Greta Garbo.
5. Robert likes to run his company as though he were a dictator.

Only sentences 4 and 5 correctly employ the word "like."

Remember these two rules when considering the use of "like":
Rule 1: "Like" can be either a verb or a preposition but not a conjunction. Thus, we should not use it before a subject-verb combination (a clause).

In sentences 1, 2, and 3, we should use the conjunction "as" or "as if" in place of the word "like" because in each case "like" is followed by a clause. In these corrected sentences, we have bracketed the clauses and capitalized the subjects and verbs to highlight the grammatical structure:

1. Winston tastes good [as a CIGARETTE SHOULD].
2. He spends money [as if there WERE no TOMORROW] or [as though there WERE no TOMORROW]. (Notice that we also have to use the subjunctive mood ["WERE"] since we are talking about a hypothetical situation.)
3. He lied on the witness stand, [as ONE WOULD EXPECT a guilty person to do].

Rule 2: We should use "like" either as a preposition to demonstrate a resemblance between two things or as a verb to express a preference.

In sentence 4, "like Greta Garbo" is a prepositional phrase. In sentence 5, "like" is the verb in the main clause, and "as though" is the conjunction launching the subordinate (dependent) clause. (Again, as in the correction for sentence 2, we have employed the subjunctive mood ["were"] because the second clause refers not to a statement of fact but to one of possibility: he is not, in fact, a dictator.)

Of course, in casual correspondence or in conversations we have more flexibility, and many idiomatic expressions using "like" are perfectly acceptable even though they do not follow these rules. Sentence 2, for example, would be fine in an informal context. Consider also the expression "It looks like rain," which employs a perfectly acceptable idiom for the highly formal statement "It looks as though it is going to rain."

The bottom line: in formal contexts, we use "like" only as a verb or a preposition and never when we mean "as," "as if," or "as though."

TEST YOURSELF: Do any of these sentences correctly use the word "like"?

1. It looks like Sam will become the next division director.
2. She acts like she owns the company.
3. He carried an umbrella, like everyone should do on a rainy morning.
4. Like a man walking a tightrope, he teetered on the brink of financial ruin.

ANSWERS:

1. It looks as though [or as if] Sam will become the next division director.
2. She acts as if [or as though] she owns the company.
3. He carried an umbrella, as everyone should do on a rainy morning.
4. Like a man walking a tightrope, he teetered on the brink of financial ruin. [Correct because we are making a comparison.]

Copyright 2001 Get It Write


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