Like or as?

When I was a child, my creative writing teacher (the immortal Mrs. Holm) mentioned a then current cigarette commercial that used the tag line, “Winston takes good, like a cigarette should. So what do you want, good grammar or good taste?”

I had a way of being distracted from the point by the wonder of the sounds when I was a kid, so I never got this lesson. But in the last 40 years radical relativism has so overthrown human communication that the word like has become an un-informed, illiterate metaphysical confession from those who yearn to live in the shadow of the beat writers and the hippies. Like, you know what I mean, man?

But dude, we need to attend to our words. They, like, matter. So recently, being reminded of that commercial and disappointing myself with my inability to explain it, I decided to figure it out. Failing that, I looked it up in Strunk and White.

Did you know that there is a significant difference between like and as? I was surprised to see how simple it is: like is used before nouns and pronouns, and as is used before phrases and clauses.

Not, per Strunk and White, “We spent our evening like in the old days,” but, “We spent our evening as in the old days.”

Then I saw it! No doubt the genesis of the Winston commercial, there in Strunk and White!

Not, “Chloe smells good like a baby should,” but, Chloe smells good as a baby should.”

Now the radical relativists want us to believe that language is determined entirely by usage or conventions. They want us to believe that when something is popular, it must be right. I have argued a philosophical case against this position in an article that will be published in The Journal, the magazine of the Society for Classical Learning. Strunk and White give a practical response (page 51 in the fourth edition):

An expression sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does. Like has long been widely musused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming. If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines.

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4 Responses

  1. “Chloe smells good” was a response to the Winston cigarette commercial. The sentence doesn’t appear in the original edition of The Elements of Style (which you can read online, courtesy of Bartleby and Gutenberg).

  2. Thanks, Andrew! I shall scoot right over there.

  3. Hi Kathleen,

    You can get a copy of the Journal for free by becoming a member of the Society for Classical Learning, which I recommend anyway.

    http://www.societyforclassicallearning.org/

  4. Will your fans be able to obtain the article in The Journal somehow?

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