Yes, you read that right – linguistics. For nary a season of Love Island, or any programme predominantly aimed at young people, may pass without a flurry of grumpy think pieces on the protagonists’ language habits. And few linguistic habits cause as much ranting from those seeking to protect the fair English tongue as use of the word like.
After several decades of like-bashing, which long predate Love Island’s arrival on our screens, commentators, headteachers and professors all continue to denounce the “excessive” use of the word like among “the young”.
But seeking to protect English grammar from like is misguided for one crucial reason: like has a grammar, too. And by understanding the grammar of like, we can learn a lot about what it means and what it contributes to someone’s speech.
Like it or not
To shed light on like’s grammar, I’ve built what is known in linguistics as a corpus. A corpus is a representative sample of language as used by certain speakers. We can then examine this corpus to understand how language is used – rather than relying on our perceptions, opinions and memories.
My corpus is not based on Love Island, but on a programme with similarly young participants – and audience members – that has also attracted much criticism for its participants’ language use: the BBC’s make-up competition Glow Up.
After transcribing the show and removing the kinds of like that are broadly “accepted” – that is the verbs, nouns, quotatives and those used for comparisons – I found that participants used like 229 times in eight episodes. That’s about 29 uses of like per episode, or one every two minutes.
First, it was notable that like was rarely either preceded or followed by a pause. So even though this use of like is regularly dismissed as a meaningless, lazy filler, it doesn’t, in fact, behave like um or er. In the programme, the participants knew what they wanted to say, and using like was part of that.
We can further understand the meaning of like by noticing that there are places in an utterance where like can appear and places where it sounds really unnatural. According to the Glow Up corpus, here’s where like might appear in an utterance such as “I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes”:
Like, I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am like going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going to like create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going to create like a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going to create a like beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going to create a beautiful look in like 15 minutes.
And here are the places where like never, or very rarely, appears:
I like am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going like to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes.
I am going to create a beautiful like look in 15 minutes.
I am going to create a beautiful look like in 15 minutes.
I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 like minutes.
I am going to create a beautiful look in 15 minutes like.
Of course, we can’t assume that this kind of like never appears in the positions marked in the second set of examples. But a large scale study of North American English speakers also found that speakers regularly produced utterances like the first set of examples but didn’t produce utterances like the second set, making my finding somewhat stronger.
Like, then, can’t just be used anywhere, but it can still appear in about six different places in our example sentence – so what is it doing?
The meaning of like
The corpus shows us that an utterance that starts with like always follows on from another utterance. The speaker who starts an utterance with like in this way might be adding their support to what someone else has just said, or emphasising that they really believe something that they have just said themselves. For example:
Dom: This is bloody marvellous. Like this is really beautiful. You have won me over 100%.
Leomie: Nah well done, Nikki. Like the eye, the colour, like it proper worked.
Like in the middle of an utterance is similar, but subtly different. It may be used to highlight the part of the utterance that’s telling us something new and relevant, or that the speaker thinks is most interesting or important. You might think that this would mean that like could highlight any and every part of a sentence but, as we’ve already seen, like can highlight certain types of constituents (combinations of words and phrases), but not others.
Ellis: I’m layering up the powder to kind of get, like, this velvety finish
Stacey: Is Ellis putting, like, a gluestick on his eyebrows?
In both cases, then, speakers use like to make sure that their message is properly understood by the person they’re speaking to, both in terms of its content and how it fits into the conversation.
We can make an analogy between like and how intonation is used in English. We could remove it from an utterance and that utterance would still be grammatical, but it wouldn’t convey its message in the same way. It could also sound really odd in the context of a conversation.
English speakers use and interpret both like and intonation without thinking about it consciously. Intonation has also been a target for language commentators who decry, for example, “uptalk”, when a speaker uses rising intonation at the end of their utterance.
But why do like and uptalk annoy people so much? Alexandra D’Arcy at the University of Victoria in Canada argues that the multi-purpose nature of like might be part of its downfall. Because all of the uses of like are pronounced in the same way, its apparent repetition makes it stand out.
More generally, though, these language gripes just seem to be a proxy for demeaning certain groups that share characteristics other than their (perceived) language use – they tend to be young, female and not in positions of power.
If we criticise a person or group based on how we think they speak, we not only draw attention away from what they’re saying, but we’re likely to stop them from wanting to speak (up) at all. Language prejudice is real and needs to be called out.
But while these headlines suggest a dark cloud over the heads of gig economy workers, recent data I’ve looked at unexpectedly shows that they are about 33% more likely to self-report positive mental health traits.
It may seem like a counterintuitive result but, in new research with Bénédicte Apouey, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, I found that self-employed gig economy workers in the UK score higher across a range of psychological wellbeing measures than workers in the mainstream economy.
To find out how the gig economy is affecting people, we matched data from the Understanding Society study (the biggest long-term study of household attitudes in the UK) and Google Trends, which shows the popularity of different search terms at different times and places. Understanding Society has information about people’s health and demographics, and tracks their employment type.
The Google search terms we analysed were primarily words associated with gig economy work in a given area. This served as a predictor for where people had gig employment at Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb. Cross-referencing this data with the Understanding Society study, enabled us to analyse the mental health of people working in the gig economy.
We found that self-employed workers reported improved ability to concentrate and self-confidence, which are both important to mental health. These workers also reported a boost to self-worth and happiness.
The boost in self-confidence and concentration fits with benefits some workers in the sharing economy receive from not needing to adhere to certain restrictions found in traditional paid work, such as working schedules set by a boss or having long commutes. Other research indicates that Uber drivers in London, although they make less than most Londoners, have greater life satisfaction.
For employees in the mainstream economy, heavy job requirements plus low autonomy lead to stress. Employees with zero hours contracts – whose hours fluctuate from week to week but who lack control over their schedules – may be under even more stress than those with regular jobs. In contrast, gig workers decide when to work and make their own decisions about customers, leading to a greater sense of control.
Our health and wellbeing measures are from the General Health Questionnaire of the Understanding Society study, which evaluates the current state of mind of respondents and asks if it is different from their usual state. Some of the questions relate to concentration, loss of sleep due to worry, and feelings that they play a useful role or can face up to problems. Other questions ask if the subject is unhappy, depressed or lacking confidence.
The scores for our measures run from lowest mental health at 0 to the best psychological health at 36. The mean is around 24. We found that self-employment increases a subject’s score by eight points – an improvement of roughly one third.
One very large change in the factors we examined was money spent on alcoholic drinks. For gig workers, it dropped by a breath-taking 200%. This isn’t necessarily a reduction in consumption of alcohol, but in spending. Uber and Deliveroo drivers are often at work when people are down the pub or at meal times, when money is often spent on drink. These are peak hours for gig workers, who need to be sober on the job. It nonetheless results in a remarkable difference for mental health, especially in the UK, where alcohol misuse is the biggest factor for death and ill-health among those aged 15 to 49.
Our results also show that women, those without a university degree and older workers – groups that are often overlooked in the regular economy – fare particularly well in terms of mental health. The sharing economy offers not only flexibility but a direct connection that allows these workers to feel that they are making a real and immediate contribution.
For women especially, self-employment gives a level of flexibility to part-time work that isn’t possible in the mainstream workforce. As women often bear the brunt of care responsibilities, this autonomy is vital to their mental health.
Lessons for all
Our preliminary conclusions point to the importance of autonomy in the workplace. The gig economy offers workers the opportunity for more control in their jobs, which may lead to more self-worth, more confidence, less strain.
It’s clear that workers who have this control, as well as flexibility and the idea that they’re making a difference, are more mentally healthy. Managers can weave flexibility into office life, empowering and engaging workers to be responsible for and confident in their decision making abilities.
Past the dramatic articles about the perils of the gig economy, the changing nature of work needs more attention. Self-employment has a positive impact on mental health, even with some insecurity. In contrast, the precariousness of zero hours contracts, where workers often learn their schedule just a few days in advance, should not be associated with gains in wellbeing found among gig workers.
English is one of the official languages of the EU, along with 22 others, and also one of the three working languages of its institutions (with German and French). On top this, English is the most commonly taught foreign language in Europe, which is a major factor in why it is the most commonly used working language. Although not everyone is happy about this, including the French EU ambassador who recently walked out of a meeting on the EU budget when the Council decided to use only English translations.
English is also often used globally as a common language between speakers of different languages. In other words, conversations are happening in English that do not involve native English speakers. This, of course, has a long and fraught colonial past – as the British Empire forced English on its colonies. But the decline of the Empire did not mean the decline of English. On the contrary, as the US rose to be a global economic power, globalisation drove the spread of English across the world – and continues to do so. And the European Union is no exception.
As part of my ongoing PhD research on the translation profession, I interviewed some British translators working at the European Commission. From their perspective, English will remain the principal working language following Brexit, as switching to only French and German, or adding another language would be unrealistic and require a huge investment in training by the EU. Instead, they report that English will continue to be used, and will simply evolve and change in these settings.
So-called “EU speak” is an example of this. Non-native speakers’ use of English is influenced by their native languages, and can result in different phrasing. For example, within the EU institutions, “training” is often used as a countable noun, meaning you can say: “I’ve had three trainings this week”. In British English, however, it is uncountable, meaning you would probably say something like: “I’ve had three training sessions this week”.
This is a minor linguistic point, but it shows how English is changing within the EU institutions due to the influence of non-native speakers. For the time being, native English speaking translators and editors limit the extent of these changes – particularly in documentation intended for the public.
But if Britain leaves the EU, there will be a dramatically reduced pool of native English speakers to recruit from, because you need to have an EU passport to work in the institutions. As people retire, fewer native speakers will work in the EU, meaning they will have less and less influence on and authority over the use of English in these contexts. This means “EU English” will likely move away from British English at a faster pace.
Englishes and linguistic change
Such change is nothing new – especially with English. “Singlish” or Singaporean English has its roots in colonial rule and has since become independent from British English, integrating grammar and vocabulary from languages that reflect Singapore’s immigrant history – including Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Tamil among others. Singlish has developed its own words and expressions out of this hybrid of languages and has evolved and shifted in response to the migrations of peoples and cultures, new technologies and social change.
Only time will tell whether “EU English” will ever move so far from its moorings. But, according to one translator I spoke to, even if Britain were to stay in the EU, English would continue to change within the institutions:
English doesn’t belong to us anymore as Brits, as native speakers, it belongs to everyone.
And the frequent exposure to and use of English in daily life means other language communities are increasingly gaining a sense of ownership over the language.
The ubiquity of English is sometimes touted as a demonstration of the enduring importance of Britain – and the US – on the world stage. From what I have seen researching translation, this assumption in fact shows how complacent English speaking countries have become.
This does not mean the economic, cultural, and military power of these countries should be dismissed. But this doesn’t change the fact that English is used as a common language in interactions that do not involve any of those countries – take, for example, a Slovenian cyclist being interviewed in English by a French journalist about his performance in the Italian cycling event Giro d’Italia.
Linguistic diversity certainly needs to be championed to ensure we do not lose humanity’s great variety of languages and dialects, and some great work is being done on this. Nevertheless, it is clear that English has developed a role distinct from its native speakers as a shared language that facilitates communication in an increasingly globalised world.