Shakespeare’s “Like You Like It” & my favorite grammar felony

Nothing deep today, just getting something off my chest and on the record (I heard that’s what blogs are for): It drives me nuts when people–dare I suggest that Americans are especially prone?–don’t know how (not) to use the words like and unlike.

Just to avoid the charge of snobbism, I’ll take an example from my very own (and very British) employer, The Economist, where an esteemed colleague this week let the following  slip into the sub-headline (what we call the “rubric”) of an article: Unlike in America, terrorism in Europe is often home-grown

Yuck! Pfui!

Now the exegesis, which I will also take from my esteemed employer, since we happen to have an (in)famous style guide (memorizing it may be the best investment you ever make in your life; I’m still working on it):

Under the entry for Like, Unlike, Johnny Grimmond, the Style Guide’s author, writes in his genius style:

Like and unlike govern nouns and pronouns, not verbs and clauses. So as in America not like in America, as I was saying, not like I was saying, as Grandma used to make them, not like Grandma used to make them, etc. English has no unas equivalent to unlike, so you must rephrase the sentence if you are tempted to write unlike in this context, unlike at Christmas, or unlike when I was a child.

If you find yourself writing She looked like she had had enough or It seemed like he was running out of puff, you should replace like with as if or as though, and you probably need the subjunctive: She looked as if she had had enough, It seemed as if he were running out of puff.

Like the hart panteth for the water brooks I pant for a revival of Shakespeare’s “Like You Like It”. I can see tense draftees relax and purr/When the sergeant barks, “Like you were.”/And don’t try to tell me that our well has been defiled by immigration;/Like goes Madison Avenue, like so goes the nation. — Ogden Nash

Fine, so what could my colleague’s rubric have said instead? The easiest re-write would have been: Europe, unlike America, often suffers home-grown terrorism.


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9 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s “Like You Like It” & my favorite grammar felony

  1. Does your anonymous college now resent you for hanging out his error in style publicly?

    True, we do not know her/his name-face, but coming by your blog is a personal reminder.

    No pain no gain?

    This could be an opportunity, a lesson, to never again write LIKE an American or to never write again AS an American; we have pseudonyms for that.

    Did I miss the point or did I just forget a colon? This is difficult…

    Thank you for the link to the STYLE GUIDE.

  2. Your hyperlinks are dangerous for wandering types. I had a thought to share about maps this morning, then I got lost in 2008.

    OK, OK, I’ll come along on this one. I want to be just like Johnny Grimond and write as he does.

    But, for spoken language? Who wants to hear Peter Frampton sing: “Do you–YOU!–feel as I do?” Yech.

    • Fine, I will offer a waiver for lustful rock’n roll songs (anything lustful, basically) and other contexts in which, for example, “ain’t” seems more appropriate than “isn’t” or “aren’t”.

      But that excludes the casual American “like I was saying”. I won’t correct the offending villain, mind you (that would mean social death for me). I’ll simply think to myself, “wheeeere’s Johnny?”

  3. Americanisms should be put in perspective, since the origins of many go back centuries. In some respects, American English is simply an older form of English English.

    So, if some contemporary expressions (not necessarily just American ones) make our teeth itch, it behooves us to remember that they go back a long time, as the Economist’s “Johnson” *points out.*

  4. I’m not going to like “As I was saying…” much more. It’s correct now, but still pompous. And still a throw-away. Just say it already, no?

    Anyway, “like” instead of “as” belongs to the “Me and Mrs. Jones, we got a thing going on” variety of mistake: It’s wrong, but it’s honest, without pretension. It’s just a misdemeanor.

    On the other hand, “You’ll have to discuss that with Mrs. Jones and I” is rampant and so much worse. It is the true felony because it is wrong and snooty. And, it’s a version of writing/speaking with fear, god awful fear of ever using the word “me”. Another kind of pronoun guilt.

    Every bit as bad is “You’ll have to discuss that with Mrs. Jones and myself.”

    Myself is much more bothered by those kinds of mistakes.

    • Myself is bothered like yourself is.

      I recall that some of us had this exact debate here on the HB, when I wrote “Obama and I; Obama and me; Obama and myself”. I believe I was, once again, in the camp of pedantic purists. Perhaps you could join me there.

      Aside from that: Yes, there is a hierarchy of evil in grammar mistakes: Those motivated by pompousness are least forgivable; those prompted by the natural flow of an ever-evolving language most forgivable.

  5. The proper and easiest re-write would have been:

    Unas in America, terrorism in Europe is often home-grown.

    What did Shakespeare do when he needed a word that didn’t exist? He coined one that suited his needs.

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