Like so many of life’s lessons, the ones we learn the hardest are the ones we learn the best. Take my wife (no pun here), who remembers so vividly making a mistake on a paper in graduate school over twenty-five years ago that she could go straight to a box in our garage and resurrect that paper with her professor’s edits. I hold it in my hand. She had written, “Like a brave warrior readies himself for battle, the tree and Christ become the image of horse and rider.” And, “The Cross tells the dreamer that it has been chosen and honored above all others in the wood, like Mary is honored over all other women.” In both sentences, her professor had crossed out like and replaced it with as. The rest of the pages lie virtually untouched. She still laments that mistake, because she cares about her writing. That’s why I have her edit mine.
Many of us are so afraid of the word like, we would start this Tip “As with.” In other sentences we would try “such as” or “as if” or even use “as” mistakenly. That’s because debate still rages (an apt word) over whether like may be used as a conjunction, and since we can’t remember The Like Rule or the definition of conjunction (like and or but or because or as or or), we write in circles around the problem. After analyzing the arguments and explanations in eight grammar books and two online sources (other grammar books would not touch the subject), I will give you the long and the longer of it: there is no short.
To support using like as a conjunction, one of my go-to authorities, Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer, quotes Shakespeare in Pericles:
Wilt live, fly after; and, like an arrow shot
From a well-experienc’d archer hits the
According to a cantankerous and vociferous horde of grammarians, Shakespeare was wrong. Bernstein confronts the horde, arguing that the only reason we distinguish between like and as is because we distinguish between like and as. “There is no logical reason why like should not be regarded as a conjunction.”
But almost seventy years ago, Margaret Bryant wrote in Modern English, “If you use like as a conjunction large segments of the public will regard you as careless or ignorant of the niceties of language.” That sentiment still holds, and we do not want to appear “careless” or “ignorant.”
THE BASICS: like is a preposition; as is a (subordinating) conjunction. Only a conjunction may appear before a phrase or a clause. And that’s the problem.
THE TRICK: to know whether the following words form the object of the preposition like, or whether they form a separate phrase or clause and therefore require as.
A QUICK REFRESHER (like a Cuba Libre with an extra squeeze of lime): a clause must have a subject and a verb; no verb, no clause; no clause, no as: use like, as I have written above: like a Cuba Libre – no verb there, just a prepositional phrase beginning with like. A phrase has no verb but typically begins with a participle or a preposition, as in with an extra squeeze of lime.
To see like and as in action, let’s take our Cuba Libres down to Havana and visit with Hemingway on his plantation, Finca Vigia, with banana trees aflutter and the Gulfstream beckoning. Before we land, take heart: you will not be confused when it must be like or it must be as. In these examples, we know like will not work:
A handsome young Cuban named René, who had grown up on Hemingway's place as his all-round handyman, chauffeur, and butler, was at Havana Airport to meet me and hustle my luggage.
[Hemingway] saw the arrival of a visitor as an opportunity to fish on the Pilar after many weeks of enforced idleness.
Another part of the routine in the Paris days was Hemingway's daily trip to a gymnasium to work as a sparring partner for fighters.
And when we are confused, remember:
• Number One: If only a noun follows, use like; do not use as or such as. Philip Corbett, keeper of the style manual for the New York Times, says, “‘Like’ is widely used, and recognized in all dictionaries, in the sense of ‘as for example.’ Many writers find it more natural and less stilted than ‘such as.’ The Times’s stylebook tends to favor ‘like.’” Or as Papa says:
"No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in . . . . That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better."
"When a writer retires deliberately from life . . . , his writing has a tendency to atrophy, just like a man's limb when it's not used.
• Number Two: If a phrase or a clause follows, use as:
As in his early days, Hemingway in the later years worked with painful slowness.
He loved the sea, but the sea is a great whore, as the book made clear.
He was having trouble with his weight, blood pressure, and diet. He was still working, though, as the stylishly written pages of A Moveable Feast show.
• Number Three: the heart of the confusion: If the verb that would complete a clause is not present but “understood,” use like; if the verb is present, use as. In 1922 Hemingway wrote a letter from Paris to his mother, quoting Flaubert:
“You know what Flaubert said, ‘The artist must live like a bourgeois and think like a demi-god.’”
Hemingway’s quotation from Flaubert could have read:
“You know what Flaubert said, ‘The artist must live as a bourgeois lives and think as a demi-god thinks.’”
• Number Four: where a clause follows, and as if works, use as if.
He talked about the act of playing a fish as if it were an English sentence. "The way to do it, the style, is not just an idle concept. It is simply the way to get done what is supposed to be done; in this case it brings in the fish. The fact that the right way looks pretty or beautiful when it's done is just incidental."
• Number Five: don’t be so terrified of misusing like that you commit another error, what the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage call a “hypercorrection.” Even Hemingway hypercorrected in The Old Man and the Sea.
He was built
as like a swordfish except for his huge jaws.
He is the Mako about to take a forty-pound bite out of the Old Man’s fish.