Controversial grammar: like or as?

December 11, 2013

By Kathy Fox
Writing With Precision 

Chocolate is comfort. Rich, dark, high-quality chocolate can relax the mind and soothe the soul. If chocolate is your favorite food, you need to experience Chocolate, the Restaurant in Santa Cruz, CA. It serves decadent chocolate desserts, of course, but they also use chocolate in drinks, appetizers, salads and entrees. If you go, be sure to order the cheese assortment plate, with its profusion of rich, decadent cheeses and sweet strawberries wading in a pool of chocolate-balsamic reduction. There is nothing better on this Earth!

Chocolate, the Restaurant takes its inspiration from the movie “Chocolat.” The movie is about a woman who opens a chocolaterie in a small town in France. (She makes and sells chocolate.) The town’s pious mayor has appointed himself guardian of the town’s souls, and he views chocolate as a metaphor for self-indulgence, promiscuity, rebellion and sin in general. He employs plenty of propaganda and coercion to keep his townspeople from supporting the chocolaterie, with wonderfully entertaining results.

Metaphor is a type of figurative language, which is language that goes beyond literal meaning. Metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things in which one thing becomes another thing. In the movie, chocolate is a metaphor for sin. The first sentence of this column is another example of metaphor.

Simile is a slightly different type of figurative language. Simile also compares two unlike things, but it does so by using “like” or “as.” Here is an example: “For me, words are like chocolate: rich, fascinating and sultry.”

“Like” is an agile word. It can be a verb meaning “enjoy,” as in, “I like chocolate”; meaning “want,” as in, “I would like a chocolate cheesecake, please”; or meaning “choose,” as in, “I will eat chocolate sausage if I like.” It can also be a noun: “I’m fond of chocolate candy and the like.” It can even be an adjective, but that usage isn’t common: “A like restaurant probably doesn’t exist.”

Believe it or not, “like” and “as” aren’t always interchangeable, at least according to most grammarians—but not all agree. The correct usage of “like” versus “as” can be as controversial as a chocolaterie in a small, Catholic town in France. Traditionally, “like” can be used as a preposition but not as a conjunction; “as” can be either one. What does that mean? A preposition creates a relationship between the words in a phrase or clause; a conjunction connects words, phrases or clauses. When “like” is used in simile, it is being used as a preposition.

If this is all too technical, here are a few tips to help you decide which one to use:

If you intend to give examples of something, you should not use “like.” Instead, use “such as.” An example: “Rich foods such as chocolate promote promiscuity.” Some dictionaries list “such as” as a definition for “like,” but they usually note that it is nonstandard usage. Nonstandard means popular but not exactly correct. (In everyday speech, nearly everyone uses “like” to give examples. You might be able to break the habit if you try to notice it in other people’s speech.)

You might mean “as though” instead of “like.” Instead of writing, “It seems like I’ve known you forever,” which incorrectly uses “like” as a conjunction, you should write, “It seems as though I’ve known you forever.”

If you are using “like” correctly, there usually shouldn’t be a verb following it. If there is a verb after it, use “as” instead.

If you can substitute “as,” “such as,” “as though” or “as if” for “like” in your sentence, and it still makes sense, then you probably shouldn’t use “like.”

If all of this detail makes your head spin, or if you feel a strong urge to debate the use of “like” versus “as,” you might need a vacation and a large dose of chocolate.

May I suggest you head to Santa Cruz and Chocolate, the Restaurant? Their house specialties are like perdition on a plate! © 2013 Columbia Daily Tribune. All rights reserved.

 

Kathy Fox is a longtime resident of Columbia, an editor by trade and a survivor of raising three kids and three dogs by choice. Send your grammar questions or pet peeves to editor@columbiatribune.com.

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