Grammar Shorts: You May be a Language Abuser and Not Even Know It jayne bodell two drops of ink

Grammar Shorts: You May be a Language Abuser and Not Even Know It

The language of truth is unadorned and always simple.
~Marcellinus Ammianus~

By Jayne Bodell 


As a language lover, I cringe when people speak and write with no regard for this beautiful language we call English. We writers all have our pet peeves, from comma splices to not knowing the difference between your and you’re. Just as important as the written pet peeves are the spoken ones. These can range from mispronunciations to repeating unnecessary words.

I inherited my love of language from my father. He was a class act in every sense of the word. He was so respectful of others that he would never honk the horn at anyone, even if they deserved it. Before I was old enough to date, he emphatically informed me that if a boy ever pulled up in the driveway and honked his horn, that would be the last I saw of said boy.

This is the man that I would hear reading aloud in his home office. He thought it was important to practice speaking. Once, he told me how much the phrase “you know” bothered him. I started to take notice, and then, it started to bother me. These two little words could be inserted into anyone’s speech and the speaker wouldn’t realize he was saying it. My father wanted to eradicate this bad habit so much that he had this printed on the back of his business card:

How many times have you used the expression “you know” in your conversation today?

Yes I know you know I know

Constantly you tell me so.

Give my ears a needed rest

Eliminate that verbal pest.

I’m not talking about using this phrase at the end of a sentence to ask your listener a question of understanding. That’s legitimate, even if it comes out as “ya know?” My pet peeve is more insidious.

Yesterday, when I was, you know, walking through the parking lot, I saw a woman with, you know, pink hair, and her two children had matching, you know, blue hair, and I’m not talking about the, you know, kind on old ladies.

Today, you don’t hear this phrase too often, probably because, my dad did such a good job, but I’m sorry to say that it has been replaced.

Have you ever listened to someone under 35 speak? Most of them can’t get through a story without inserting the word “like.” The word like has a legitimate use. It’s a simile, a word used to compare two different things. But when you use it for no apparent reason, that’s bad. Take a look.

He was, like, ready to go to the store, but then he, like, changed his mind, and, like, decided to go outside, and, like, mow the lawn.

I wonder how the word like slithered into our conversations and became this annoying speech impediment. When I hear someone start to tell a story with five likes in the first sentence, I begin to only hear the word like – tuning out everything else. Pretty soon my mind starts to wander, thinking how am I going to stay focused long enough to hear what this person is saying, and then realize, I need to put tissues on my grocery list because this allergy season is a real killer.

I believe this impediment comes from the “Valley Girl” speech made popular in the eighties. And like Swatches and Pet Rocks, it should have faded as all fads should. So, why does it still persist?

Could it be that the speaker is afraid of sounding too forward in our overly sensitive, politically correct culture? Using the word like offers a way to sound soft and inoffensive. Don’t they know for some of us the opposite is happening?

Another possibility is that it’s a way to keep the listener engaged. I think when someone is trying to tell a story, he is afraid to have a moment of silence. Silence is scary. You might lose your audience or be interrupted. The average attention span today is about 3.5 seconds. It’s no wonder we feel the need to fill our conversation airspace with noise.

So far, I have come up with two remedies to combat this ear assault. First, follow in my one-hit-wonder-of-a-poet father’s footsteps and print something on my business card. This will take work since I don’t have a business card, and I lack talent as a poet. Difficult, but doable.

Secondly, interrupt my storyteller. The next time I hear someone start to tell a story using like I’ll interrupt and ask, “He was, like, driving the car? How does he do that, sit in the driveway and pretend?” The speaker may find this rude at first, but you’ll make your point more quickly which in the long run will far outweigh the initial affront.

And now it’s your turn. I’m encouraging you to join me. Interrupt your speaker and question the use of like. You’ll probably get a sneer, a hrumpf, or a questioning, huh, but be strong. You might get all three. It’s important that you point out the trauma this causes to your delicate ears. We can do this together. Let’s unite and fight to clean up our language. Challenge your talker to tell her story without using the word like, and then tell her you’ll like it much better.

Jayne Bodell

Jayne Bodell graduated from UW-Madison with an English degree many, many years ago. About two years ago, she renewed her interest in writing by starting a blog about grammar but soon realized that she wanted to expand her subject matter. She now blogs about keeping life simple, smart, and sassy at In between blog posts, she’s planning to branch into the scary world of writing fiction by writing a collection of flash fiction stories.
Jayne lives in Wisconsin and fills her spare time with gardening, photography, knitting, reading, and a side of coloring. Her favorite way to vacation is to pick a general destination and drive, no time constraints and no plans.


1) Tell Me Your Why

2) Hump Day Humor: ‘Most Hated Phrases’

3) Hump Day Humor: ‘The Dark Side of Writing’

4) Warning! Writing May Be Habit-Forming

5) Writing Advice: Facing Your Fears

6) Grammar Shorts: Make Your Writing Better Using These 3 Suggestions

7) Grammar Shorts: Troublesome Pairs

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  1. Jane, your post has made me think of a few of my own pet peeves in the spoken language.
    So many people in my area of the country interject the phrase “you know what I mean” regularly into their sentences. After hearing it for about the 10th time, I usually am biting my tongue so I won’t blurt out a rude “No, I have no earthly idea what you mean!”
    And the other one that really gets me is “might could.” Ex. “Could you run down to the store in a bit and pick up a gallon of milk.” “I might could.”
    Well can you or not? Just give me a simple yes or no, please! For the sake of language!!
    Loved it!

    • “Might could” is a new one for me. That doesn’t even make sense! How interesting that different regions have their own pet peeves. Now I’m wondering if this “like” problem is regional. Hmmmmm.

  2. Jayne, Your father must have been a man of integrity. I think I would have been honored to meet him. I really enjoyed this piece you wrote. I’m annoyed when I hear a speaker use “Umm” over and over. Once I hone in on that sound, the speaker looses me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thanks John. Yes my father was quite the gentleman. They don’t make ’em like that any more. Um is another one that gets me too. Aren’t you glad that we can share our pain.:)

  3. Oh. Written by a true grammarian! There’s a certain amount of rule breaking I can understand when it clearly fits within an idiolect or sociolect, but not everything can be tolerated. I flat out can’t be close with people who don’t believe in the Oxford comma and who incessantly end sentences with prepositions.

    • Well, I’m with you on the Oxford comma, but I do end sentences with a preposition. I try not to, but for the kind of writing I do, changing it to a “with which” phrase is too formal. Thanks for reading.

  4. Great piece. “You know” is right up there with “like.” My pet peeve phrase is “If you will.” I have a stash of smart ass comments I would love to respond to that one. Really makes my ears hurt.

  5. Jayne this is so good. As a teacher of young children….I understand many of the spoken pet peeves. It is difficult to concentrate and listen. Then they carry them into their writing. Yikes! I have spent many days explaining and trying to set my students free of these overused words and phrases. Thanks for permission to interrupt adults as well. 🙂

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