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An English lesson on 'like,' 'whatever'

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August 12, 2014 | 12:01 PM
If you spend any time observing how people use the English language, you certainly have noted that when people cannot think of what to say next, their response often is, “Whatever.”

My dictionary calls the word’s usual intent “dismissive and rude.” It defeats the goal of precise and accurate language.

There are many other expressions used to fill spaces, change subjects or cover ignorance.

Another such word is like. As an English teacher and sometime journalist I learned mishandling this word is serious business. You see, there are no other words that can perform the functions like can.

Only like can produce a direct comparison (She had cheeks like roses). Used carefully, like works as a preposition (Nothing succeeds like trying).

What many of us do is use the word as a defense while we think of what to say next.

“Like, like, I’m not sure.” Starting a sentence with like usually leads to embarrassing protracted hesitation and uncertainty.

One of my strongest student editors developed this like-before-everything habit.

It was so unbecoming I decided to to something teachers should never do.

In English class one day I called her on it, upfront, before her peers, as she was trying to make a comment.

She turned several shades of amber. I swore I would never do anything like that again.

Know what? She never began a sentence with like again. Some time later she thanked me for forcing the halt of a bad language habit.

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Then how about those souls who cannot manage a sentence without inserting “you know” every few phrases.

I spend a healthy share of my professional life observing how others use language.

You may be thinking is that any way to spend one’s time? I think so.

There is no more important skill than mastering one’s native tongue. Yet we settle for the minimum, only what will get us by.

Yet anyone who speaks and writes clearly and accurately is in demand.

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Some would say, “Obviously.” Oh, oh! Another word that undergoes overuse.

As my students sometimes suggested, “What are you trying to tell us, Mr. Johnson?” If that isn’t obvious, I don’t know what is.


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