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Teenage Slang: Using the Word “Like” (Maybe Too Much)

“And so she was like, it’s, like, not really, like, a big deal? And I was like, but you don’t, like, even know what you’re talking about, so, like? You know?”

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. For better or worse, the word “like” is a part of the teenage vernacular, staging a takeover of a kid’s vocabulary on the eve of their thirteenth birthday. Of course, today’s teens might not be so inclined toward using it if they knew “like” was a throw-back to 1980s valley-speak, a dialect of California English spoken by Valley Girls and popularized in Frank Zappa’s song, “Valley Girl”.

“This isn’t a new phenomenon,” says Tori Cordiano, a consulting psychologist at the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “Teens tend to be more dramatic in their speech than adults. They often use ‘like’ to signal emotion (“I, like, lost it when I saw my grade”). They can also use it in place of the grammatically correct word (“He was like, I’ll call you” versus “He said, I’ll call you”). And they may do this more than most adults.”

That said, “like” does have two grammatically correct uses: similarity (“That shirt looks like mine!) or enjoyment (“I like this soup!”). It can also, less correctly, be used to approximate (“It was like six feet wide.”) or as a quotative—a word that can serve as spoken quotation marks.

But, these issues aren’t the real crux of the issue.

It’s sentences that, like, sound, like, this, with, like, every other word, like, being like. What’s that, like, even about?

According to John Ayto, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, “like,” and its counterpart, “you know,” are filler words.

“We all use fillers because we can’t keep up highly-monitored, highly-grammatical language all the time,” Ayto says. “We all have to pause and think. We’ve always used words to plug gaps or make sentences run smoothly.”

Cordiano agrees. “A big reason why teens (and people in general) use the word, ‘like,’ is to fill space while speaking. Adults do this too, although adults may be more likely to use other filler words, such as ‘umm’ or ‘ahh’.”

For some parents, the verbal tic is simply too annoying to stand. “My oldest daughter used to say, ‘like,’ all the time,” says Karen Vargas, whose two teenage sons have never picked up the habit. “It drove us all completely crazy! Sometimes it was hard to even have a conversation with her.”

Others worry that it will make their teenager appear unprofessional in job or academic interviews, but Cordiano says not to worry. “For most teenagers, this isn’t something that parents need to be too concerned about, although many parents describe it as annoying. Similar to teen slang used by previous generations, most of today’s teens tend to decrease their overuse of this word, especially in professional situations, as they mature.”

If it’s a concern for you, there are ways around it.

3 Strategies to Decrease Saying the Word “Like”:

1. Become aware

Cordiano says, “Parents can do a little bit of coaching to decrease its use or to use it correctly. Help your teens to become more aware of their use of the word.” A great strategy for increasing awareness is to simply keep count of the number of “likes” your teen utters in a day. They may be surprised at the total.

2. Replace “like” with a different filler

Cordiano suggests developing this helpful skill: “Teach them to replace the filler word with a pause or a breath.” Advise them to pause when they feel a “like” coming on, rather than uttering the word. Pausing will make them sound more authoritative than using a filler.

3. Expand your vocabulary

And, encourage them to broaden and strengthen their vocabulary. The more words they have at their disposal, the easier they can express a thought and rely less on fillers.

With all that said, don’t, like, mind it too much. Obnoxious though it can seem, most teens do grow out of their “like” phase. And, besides, the word serves the noble purpose of giving teens time to consider what they’re saying before they say it. After all, isn’t that, like, what we want?

Katy Fishman was a former intern with Your Teen Magazine.

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