October 14, 2008

Why does The New Yorker gotta be like that?

Radosh.net grammar correspondent Vance Lehmkuhl writes:

The New Yorker gets confused when people misuse the word "like."

For example: "I was like, 'Are you coming or not?'"

Technically, no, that wasn't what you were like, it's what you said. Sure, by saying that, it is in some small way what you were like, but grammatically, a person can't be like a quotation. Even though this is a standard colloquial usage that everyone under 50 seems to know and understand, The New Yorker pretends not to understand it at all, and demonstrates this by relentlessly mispunctuating the phrase.

In The New Yorker, the above quote would be rendered as: "I was, like, 'Are you coming or not?'" The difference is small - a single comma - but significant: 'Like' is no longer part of the sentence structure but set apart from it. In other words, with an unmistakable you-kids-get-off-my-lawn stance, the magazine is equating the "said" usage, where the word "like" is used substandardly yet functionally (drawing an off-kilter comparison between two things) with the Valley-Girl usage -- "Like, Omigod!" or "I was, like, going to the mall" -- where the word is essentially a meaningless interjection.

This is not a one-time slip, but a style rule applied consistently for years now. In the Arianna Huffington profile from The Politics Issue, though, it gets even worse: There's the typical version in a quote from Bill Maher ("I was, like, 'Oh, where's Arianna?'"), but when Arianna's talking about her attitude during her childhood -- in other words, quite literally what it was like, -- it's punctuated "It was, like, 'Oh my God, there are all these books!'"

I realize the proximity of "Oh my God" may have clouded the copy desk's vision on this one. [Ed note: Here's a more clear example from the piece: "Itís, like, This happened, this didnít work, letís move on.Ē] But The New Yorker is supposed to be, and used to be, the sine qua non of copy editing. The magazine has adopted a style rule that makes reasonable people igry and only furthers its public image as a parochial, old-World-wannabe bastion of upper-income hauteur.

It's unfortunate, because in reality it remains an excellent magazine, but this one habit is, like, abominable.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


It seems to me the magazine should be able to guide itself using a simple substitution process. In the case of a sentence such as, "I was like, 'Oh, where's Arianna?'" I was like is the equivalent of I said, or, more precisely, I thought to myself or I said something along the lines of. There should be no confusion in the least about how to punctuate any of those phrases. (I might add that given that this formulation often does not describe something that was literally said -- either not out loud or not precisely -- like is arguably not substandard at all, but entirely appropriate shorthand.)

I think Vance's second example, "It was, like, 'Oh my God, there are all these books!'" is made tricky not by the presence of "Oh my God" but by the presence of a quotation. Had Huffington said, "I just knew I would never be bored early on. It was like I always felt there all these books," the editors could not possibly have failed to recognize that the word like here is the equivalent of as if, or perhaps that, and should never have been set off with commas. Since Huffington did use an internal thought bubble, the substitution process is a little more complicated, but not overwhelming. Simply swap It was like for It was as if I said to myself.

In my added example ("It's, like, This happened...") It's like is the rough equivalent of It is to say. Why the comma?

And here's a curious thing: When Huffington describes the appeal to her of Bernard Levin, she says: ďIt was just like everything was so delicious about him.Ē

That's how the New Yorker renders it. Not "It was just, like, Everything was so delicious..." Or even "It was just like, Everything was so delicious..." I completely fail to see the grammatical difference between this quote and "It's, like, This happened...." How does the addition of "just" change anything?

I'm reminded of a paper I read a while back about the use of apostrophes in the official media of Barbados to mark out the island patois (Bajan) as a substandard dialect.

Yay, found the link:

One gripe: sine qua non means, like, "indispensable ingredient," right? But maybe you were trying to sound mock-pretentious...

Well, I was trying to sound mock-pretentious, but I was also trying to pick a closer "classy Latin" phrase, which I think would be, like, Ne plus ultra. Or maybe Sui generis. You know, one of that crowd.

Anyway, I'll admit I didn't read the entirety of your link, Ben - I stopped after the first 128 paragraphs - but it looks illuminating and I do see parallels in all seriousness. I did read the cartoon.

Let me just add to all of the above inquiries that the original issue is very simple: In attempting to standardize a slangy way of talking, the New Yorker renders it as worse grammar than it really is. If "like" is set off, it's meaningless, so the sentence becomes "I was 'Are you coming or not?'" - which is grammatically nonsensical, much wackier than suggesting the phrase is what you were like.

This is why I always use "all." "I was all, 'Where's the packing tape, Mom?' And she was all, 'In the fucking box!' And I was all, 'Geez.'"

While we're at it, can we get The New Yorker to stop spelling "per cent" as two words? For some reason, that drives me batty.

What drives me batty is when they apply their own style rules, e.g. use of dieresis ("cŲoperate"), to quotations from other publications that aren't so pretentious

The Economist also insists on rendering proper American nouns with British spelling, e.g. "World Trade Centre." This drives me even battier.

I yield to no one in my frustration with TNY's overly precious editing. I go nuts when they spell "focused" with two s's. But this complaint is off base and so are your illustrations via substitutions of other phrases.

The comma has another function besides the grammatical: it marks pauses in speech. This is why you can't just swap in "it is to say" or "I said" and punctuate "I was, like" the same way.

When "I was like" (in this sense) is spoken, there is a natural pause after "was" and it's more than fine to put a comma there. In fact, "I was like" doesn't read naturally to me without it. To the hurried reader, omitting the comma does encourage a misreading of the sentence to mean "I was similar to" - even though they would make no such error listening to that phrase when spoken.

Verdict: TNY still guilty of fussy, distracting editing (and overuse of twee expressions like "moral suasion" - not to mention mild, lame humor in Shouts & Murmurs, political analysis that makes readers feel rewarded for their oh-so-enlightened viewpoint) but not in this case.

Really? You would pause before "like"? I wouldn't, and I don't hear other people doing it. I tried to find YouTube clips of Arianna or Bill Maher using that construction, but nothing presented itself (and she pauses between every other word, which makes me think that capturing a spoken pause is not a good punctuation rule).

For the record, the New Yorker's legacy spelling and punctuation doesn't bother me. It's overly-precious, sure, but at least it makes sense. They earn of ton of good will from me for freely printing "obscenities."

Peter, along with Daniel, I think you're wrong in claiming a need for a pause between "I was" and "like." Nobody (except perhaps people reading copy out loud at the New Yorker offices) says it that way - you're just as likely to get a pause in between "I" and "was."

But even if this were the case, the use of a comma to enhance the "flow" of transcribed speech is subordinate to its use as a marker to indicate grammar. That is, if introducing a comma in the service of flow alters or destroys the legitimate grammatical structure of the sentence, the flow has to take a back seat - and the New Yorker tends to stick to that principle in other cases.

Sorry, forgot to add: I do agree that Shouts and Murmurs is more often than not a big disappointment for a magazine that has published some great humor writing over the years. In particular, I cringe (here's that igry thing again) when I see they've given the space over yet again to the once-great, now absolutely pathetic, Woody Allen. (Why not get some fresh Radosh in there instead?)

There's a mental pause, no? It goes something like this: "I was... [momentary loss of words] ...like... [and now it comes to me]: oh my God! You did not wear St. John to the Costume Institute gala"

Nope, sorry, still don't buy it. Why would you say "I was" if you weren't intending to immediately follow it with "like"? It's all one concept, one thought. I've heard the phrase said by teenagers and young adults many times without ever getting the slightest indication of of this mental pause.

What you describe would, however, make perfect sense as a way to read the New Yorker's punctuation of it.

I, like, really like Arianna Huffington. Rich fag hags, like, rule!

Guys. Come one. Commas around the like, already. Here's how it works: There is a logical break between the copula and the quotation in "I was, like, beam me up" or whatever your chosen example. The logical break, also a breakdown, is marked not by commas and not by a soundless pause but by the insertion of the extrasyntactical word "like". The grammar is aggressively discontinuous. The sentence starts by attempting to characterize the subject. Then the sentence gives up. The sentence finds nothing to which the subject may be likened. The sentence stops. (Aposiopesis.) The sentence inserts the word "like," by which the sentence means, "How shall I say this?" And then the sentence quotes some utterance that cannot name but betokens the ineffable quality.

I read and considered all the learned and stylistically sensitive remarks above but I was, like, how can you not isolate such a buffer word with commas or dashes?

PS Love, Milan

Also, TG, on "I was all": Remember, you can say "I was all, like, you're kidding" but you can't invert it as * "I was, like, all you're kidding." That shows that "all" and "like" have different roles to play.

Milan - Thanks for your considered response. You're making the same argument as Peter - that there's a pause that needs to be delimited. But there isn't any pause. Young Americans use "I was like" all the time in sentences at warp speed - "I was like, X, and he was like, Y, and I was like, Z..." They're not saying "I was" and then stopping to see if they can complete the thought exactly or need to use a comparative - they're saying that the following quote is what they were like.

Can any of you extra-comma apologists tell me that you've really, truly heard people saying "I was..." and then pausing, only to continue with this construction? I've never heard that, and I've heard "I was like" hundreds of times over the years.

Oops. In rereading your comment I see I missed a crucial "not" before "a soundless pause." So you needn't cite an instance of someone pausing audibly. (Peter still has to, though!)

My point, however, stands: If you contextualize the "like" as extrasyntactical, that means the person was intending to say "I was..." and immediately follow it by the quote - "I was, are you coming or not?" - and only because the speaker (or, in your oddly sentient universe, the sentence itself) cannot think of the exact quote is the "like" inserted.

If that were the case, then yeah, you'd need to set off that "like." But that's not what's happening, because no one starts a sentence (or, if you prefer, no sentence starts itself) intending to say "I was, are you coming or not?"

If we look at this through Occam's-Razor lenses, the explanations given by the extra-comma advocates all seem to depend on bizarre convoluted hypothetical scenarios that don't actually happen. Meanwhile, the meaning and intent of "I was like," is simple, straightforward and clear.

"It's a four-letter word / that used to mean "as if" / and the meaning is covered / in cobwebs"

Cobwebs, Loudon Wainwright III (1996)

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