Re-definition #1: An indicator that the speaker is about to do an impression of someone, rather than simply quote him or her.
Example: “She was like, ‘Girl, I don’t know you.’”
The speaker isn’t just relaying information here; if he or she were, it would be very easy to use “said.” But “said” is inadequate if the speaker is about to convey the person’s speech patterns or physical mannerisms as well as his or her words. “Like” encompasses a broad range of verbs that include how the person spoke, rather than just which words he or she used.
Re-definition #2: An indicator that the rest of the sentence is hyperbole.
Example: “The peach pit was, like, the size of a mouse.”
Was the peach pit actually the size of a mouse? No. But because this is only faint hyperbole, it’s certainly possible that the listener might assume that the peach pit was really this large. The insertion of the word “like” removes the chance of this misunderstanding. “Like” is used in place of the longer and more awkward “something like” to show the listener that the speaker won’t finish the story in a way that’s exactly true to reality.
Re-definition #3: An indicator that the rest of the sentence is less specific than it may appear.
Example: “I saw Sarah, like, an hour ago.”
Much like hyperbole, the listener knows intuitively that the part of the sentence that follows the word “like” isn’t 100% precise. But here, rather than exaggeration, “like” shows that the speaker him- or herself doesn’t quite remember the exact details. Maybe the speaker saw Sarah an hour and fifteen minutes ago. Maybe the speaker saw Sarah fifty minutes ago. The speaker’s use of “like” shows that he or she is describing a range of time, despite only directly refering to one specific moment.
Re-definition #4: An indicator that the following word isn’t exactly what the speaker means.
Example: “I put the, like, blanket on my bed.”
There’s a reason that non-native English speakers adopt the word “like” so quickly. It’s a very useful way to say, “I’m not expressing myself perfectly, but the words that follow are pretty close to what I’m thinking.” Mybe the speaker didn’t put the blanket on the bed; maybe he or she put the bedspread on the bed, or maybe the blanket was an afghan rather than a comforter. “Like” tells the listener that there’s an approximation coming up.
Re-definition #5: [Similar to #4] An indicator that the speaker isn’t quite sure of his or her own intention.
Example: “I’m kind of, like, angry about it.”
Sometimes, the issue isn’t that the speaker can’t communicate exactly what he or she is thinking; the issue is that the speaker doesn’t know it him- or herself. In this example, the speaker might not be angry. He or she is probably experiencing a complex mixture of emotions that can’t be precisely described by one word, but “angry” is the closest label that the speaker can find. The word “like” informs the listener of the speaker’s internal turmoil.
These re-definitions are all related in that they’re indicators that the rest of the sentence conveys a broader meaning than its words imply. This could be interpreted in two ways: that people aren’t choosing their next words with enough care, or that it’s acceptable — even encouraged — for the following words to be perceived loosely. So the debate over whether or not the word “like” is lazy talk doesn’t really have to do with that word at all; it’s much more about whether or not it’s lazy talk to have the option to apply a loose meaning to words that are traditionally specific.
It seems to me that it’s too constricting to limit words to only their exact definitions. As the linguistic inventor Lewis Carroll wrote, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Language should match the way we think, and thoughts are sometimes hazy. I could even argue that it’s overconfident never to use “like,” since that’s refusing to admit that you sometimes can’t perfectly convey your thoughts. The problem arises when we rely too much on loose meanings to the point at which we’re no longer communicating clearly. After all, another goal of language is to distill complex thoughts into universally understandable sentences. When we use “like” in every phrase, everything becomes ambiguous, so we can’t understand each other at all. That’s why we need to strike a balance between underusing and overusing “like.” But in order to do that, we need to give the word some degree of linguistic legitimacy. So let’s accept the word into the upper echelons of speech. It’s time to end the crusade against “like.”