The word ‘like’ traditionally has two base* definitions:
- verb: to take pleasure in or feel an attraction for (eg. “I like dancing in the rain.”);
- preposition: similar to or resembling (eg. “She wants a puppy like the one her friend has.”)
But in modern times, Americans and some other English speakers tend to use ‘like’ in additional ways and using different definitions. These are almost exclusively used in casual speech and might be considered slang.
Here are the four other ways ‘like’ is typically used.
‘like’ can be used for approximation, similarly to ‘about’, ‘around’, ‘approximately’, or ‘roughly’. For example:
There were like five hundred people there, so it took me a while to find Sandra in the crowd.
Using ‘like’ here is even more imprecise than ‘about’ or ‘around’. Without this ‘like’, a listener might assume the spear had some way to estimate the number of individuals on site for the above example (whether that estimation is scientific or very loose). But by using ‘like’ in this instance, the listener understands that there was simply a lot of people there. If nothing else, the speaker felt like there was around 500 people there, regardless of how crowded the place was in actuality.
When following the verb to be, ‘like’ can be used in place of ‘said’, ‘asked’, ‘thought’, etc. For example:
She was like, “I can’t stand that band; their sound is so unoriginal.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? They’re brilliant!”
One advantage of using ‘be like’ in this way is that it’s used to express sentiments to get a point across, and the quotes are not expected to be precise quotes (similar to the way Reported Speech is used). When you use ‘said’ or most of the other traditional quotatives, it’s generally assumed that you’re giving a direct quote. ‘be like’, on the other hand, is less about what a person exactly said and more about how the reporter experienced it. I, for example, use ‘be like’ to express something I thought about saying but chose not to say.
One effective way to add emphasis is to pause (even slightly) before the crucial phrase, and add the word ‘like’. This subtly prepares the listener to pay special attention to whatever is spoken next. For example:
He was, like, so scared that he refused to get out of the car.
In this example, ‘like’ is used in place of adverbs like ‘really’, ‘incredibly’, etc, and instead of (or in addition to) speaking ‘so’ and/or ‘scared’ louder, longer, or at a higher pitch.
‘like’ is often used in the same way as ‘um’, ‘uh,’ or ‘er’. In this case, it holds no meaning; it’s an empty expression. It’s only spoken to fill what might otherwise be silence. This is usually done to buy ourselves time while thinking about whatever we’re going to say next.
However, there is a way the filler ‘like’ can be used purposefully (even if done subconsciously): It can be effective in maintaining a certain flow to speech. This is important because flow is one of the factors that controls the tone. It can even have an effect on listener comprehension.
The modern usages of ‘like’, while perhaps overused by some members of younger generations, do have purpose and validity. Broadly speaking, ‘like’ is used to convey the speaker’s experience or perception (elevating that above realistic precision) and to emphasize a point.
* There are more than just those two traditional definitions, but other meanings are rooted in these two base forms. For example, the first one can be in noun form (i.e. something that you take pleasure in or feel an attractions to, as in “What are some of your likes and dislikes?”), and the second one can be a conjunction, adjective, or adverb, still holding the meaning of similarity or resemblance.