The distinction between like and as, which was once a darling of the grammar police, is growing more faint by the day. Just this morning, I read the following sentence by someone whom I consider among the best living writers, Maria Popova:
Like Whitman did with his Leaves of Grass Burton kept obsessively revising and expanding his magnum opus . . . .
Purists would say that Popova should have written “As Whitman did . . . .”
Here are sentences we’ll use to discuss the traditional distinction between like and as:
- Winston tastes good like a cigarette should. (Only those of us of a “certain age” will remember that famous ad jingle.)
- He spends money like there is no tomorrow.
- He lied on the witness stand, like one would expect a guilty person to do.
- My cousin looks like Greta Garbo.
- Robert likes to run his company as though he were a dictator.
In the strictest sense, only sentences 4 and 5 appropriately employ the word like.
Here are two rules that have traditionally governed our use of like:
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:
- Winston tastes good [as a CIGARETTE SHOULD].
- 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.
- He lied on the witness stand, [as ONE WOULD EXPECT a guilty person to do].
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, grammar is dynamic, and usage—especially by professional, published writers—eventually changes the rules. After all, language should work for us, not against us, and when communication is clear, some rules are exposed for the shibboleths they always were.
And even if the distinction between like and as held firm, we would nonetheless have more flexibility in casual correspondence (emails, texts) and in oral conversations; 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 rules do change, but unfortunately many people don’t keep up with those changes. In professional contexts—especially when the stakes are high (a letter of application for a job or a letter of recommendation, for example), we are wise to employ the more traditional rules. We never know how our reader may feel about recent changes in the rules.
So the bottom line remains: 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: Which of these sentences use the word like in a manner consistent with traditional thinking about like and as?
- It looks like Sam will become the next division director.
- She acts like she owns the company.
- He carried an umbrella, like everyone should do on a rainy morning.
- Like a man walking a tightrope, he teetered on the brink of financial ruin.
- It looks as though [or as if] Sam will become the next division director.
- She acts as if [or as though] she owns the company.
- He carried an umbrella, as everyone should do on a rainy morning.
- Correct. [We are making a comparison.]
Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2022.