…and I was like “dude, that’s the quotative use of ‘be like’.”

As I mentioned recently, I’m taking a class. While it’s been a bit of a trip getting back into the swing of attending classes, I’m actually enjoying the class. It’s a sociolinguistics class. A course I’ve been wanting to take for years. I missed taking it as an undergrad, though it was very relevant to one of my majors (linguistic anthropology). (It was offered only every couple of years, and happened to be offered the semester I was studying abroad.)

Anyhow, we’re going to be doing some sort of assignment on the quotative use of be like in English. That is, the use of the verb to be + like to mean, more-or-less “to say.” As in:

I was talking to this guy, and he was like “what’s that all about,” and I was like “How the hell should I know.” And he was like “get over yourself.” And I was like “whatever.”

Of course, this does not necessarily translate into the following dialog:

A: What’s that all about?
B: How the hell should I know.
A: Get over yourself.
B: Whatever.

Unlike when the verb say is used, using be + like doesn’t imply direct quotation. It usually suggests that the speaker is paraphrasing either a quotation, or an attitude or emotional response. It’s also generally used informally. This use of the quotative be like is extremely common not only in American English, but also in Canadian and British English. In spite of its wide use, it’s not always popular and is subject to some discussion even among those who don’t formally study language.

Anyhow, for my class, my professor is like “find an example. Use Google.” And I’m all like “dude, I can find a gazillion examples using Google.”

So, not satisfied with finding just one example for tomorrow’s class, I find myself wanting to dig into the search. And I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned and stumbled across. First, I found this great example of someone playing with the usage of “be all like,” a variant of “be like”:

…the high court ruled 6-3 that former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s play to put Oregon’s assisted suicide law out of business was unconstitutional. See, Ashcroft was all like, “Physician-assisted suicide is not a legitimate medical practice under the Controlled Substances Act and prescribing such lethal medication violates federal law!” But then the Supreme Court was all like, “Ashcroft’s directive is both unlawful, and unenforceable, and the attorney general has overstepped his authority.”

Here are some issues that come up in looking for use of the quotative “be like.”

  • it can be used with different tenses (I was like “dude”, I’m like “dude”, I’ll be like “dude”…) and subjects (I was like “wtf”, you were like “wtf”, he was like “wtf”, we were like “wtf”, Sally was like “no way,” the governor was like “yuh-huh.”)
  • it can be used with a couple of different modifiers (my mom was all like “yo”, he’s totally like “you rock”, I was just like “oh my god”)
  • In searching for some examples of one tense and conjugation, such as “was like,” you run into, like, a medley of other uses of like (eg. “he was like a sloth” or other, “I thought he was, like, amazing” “what life was like back then”)
  • Not all quotative uses co-occur with quotation marks (He was like, no way.), and not all apparent quotations mean a quotative use (The show was like “Repo Man”)
  • I’ve actually found some other cool stuff in my googlings, but since I have to go to bed. I’ll spare you. For now, that is. (Bwa ha ha ha.)

    17 thoughts on “…and I was like “dude, that’s the quotative use of ‘be like’.”

    1. Alejna that was like awesome! of course I have to re-read again and again to understand it fully but i started off my day learning something. oh god, it’s 12:30 pm. *sigh*

    2. Cool! I discuss this a bit during my first section each semester. Two points I make are: 1) quotative “be like” is used far more widely and by much more of the population (and extends into much older segments of the population) than we assume, 2) quot. “be like” could be grammatical someday. Both points surprise the students. (it’s during a discussion of prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar, btw) But at least for the first point, which is the only testable one, I think I’m right. We associate “be like” with teen-speak, but I’m willing to bet that my use of any form of the word “said” is very rare and reserved for only the most formal of occasions. And you may recall that I have fallen out of the traditional “youth” demographic (although I can still join the army- yippee!). Anyway, I ask my students to listen carefully to people speaking for a couple of weeks, and see what they think the dividing line for use of “be like” is. Is it a Boomer-GenX divide? Or do Boomers use it too? How about 65+? Anyway, no one ever gets back to me, but I think it’s an interesting question!

      Oh, I also wanted to add that I think googling “be like” is going to get you more teen-speaky usages, since I think people like myself who use spoken “be like” regularly are more self conscious about actually writing the form.

    3. dude. Like, ONE of your majors? WTF? I’m like so impressed, yo. Me, I was all like, “there is NO WAY I’m like writing a thesis in NEUROSCIENCE”, like to hell with honors, yo.

    4. ericalee-
      Glad you enjoyed it, and weren’t scared right back into bed!

      Cool thoughts and such. My response to you started to get longer than my original post. So I’ll get back to you in a bit.

      That’s great. Thanks.

      I didn’t do the honors thing, either. Just two majors. Linguistic Anthropology and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, in case you wondered. Which is a mouthful to say. And way easier than neuroscience, I ‘spect.

    5. The funny thing about “I’ll be like…” is that it’s not (usually) really talking about something in the future. It’s a habitual, really. So it’s more like, “I’m usually like…” Okay, I’m a geek. I know it.

      Love this post, by the way. :-)

    6. I often Google things to amuse myself….my last search was for +”i was like wtf” and I got 694,000 results, including this page, which was an awesome read, btw

    7. ha! i know this is like a year later, but I totally also googled, “dude, and then I was like…” and this was the first page…Anyway, muchos interesting!

    8. I’ve always thought that “to be like” tends to be non-quotative, but “to be all” is mostly quotative. e.g. When he walked in, I was like, craaap. (emotional response)
      e.g. when he walked in, I was all, “what are you doing here?”

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