Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

He Seemed Like, “No Way!”

Posted by Neal on November 15, 2004

The discussion of seem that I linked to last week has just gotten even more interesting. In this post, Mark Liberman brings in a thought from Maryellen MacDonald regarding usages of seem like this one that Liberman quotes:

My husband and myself meet with a lawyer this past Monday. He seems like I really have a case and should not have any problem.

MacDonald’s thought is that the like after the seem might not be the like that follows seem in more typical sentences such as:

This movie seems like a good one to rent.

Instead, it might be none other than our good friend quotative like, better known from sentences like this one:

He was like, “Get outta here!”

I don’t know if this is really what’s going on, but it makes a lot of sense. If like after be can indicate someone’s state of mind, then why can’t it indicate your best guess as to someone’s state of mind if you use it with seem? If such a generalization is really going on, I predict we’ll see sentences with like following other linking verbs, like these:

  • She’s becoming like, “What’s taking them so long?”
  • Whenever you get mad, you get like, “I don’t care what anyone thinks!”

And if Doug’s regularization of quotative like to allow extraction is catching on out there, we might even hear stuff like this:

  • “I really have a case,” is what he seems like.
  • “Get outta here!” That’s what he was like.
  • “I don’t care what anybody thinks,” is what you get like.

2 Responses to “He Seemed Like, “No Way!””

  1. Anonymous said

    Your pal Grig here…

    I have considered “like” in the fashion, “He was like, all mad and junk,” almost like setting a scene. It’s almost sets a dramatic pause before a curtain opens.

    Dude: So she’s like, “I don’t care,” and I’m, you know, like, “Whatever.”

    which means

    Punk: If I were to describe what she said, it would resemble this scene: apathetic, her eyes drooped as she said, “I don’t care.” My part, which is important to note, went like this: “Whatever.” I used a common pronoun which I cleverly changed into an interjection, leading her to make an assumption that not only was I annoyed she did not care, but I wanted her to come to that conclusion on her own, and through the use of sarcasm, I would double back and make it seem like I did not care, either. This would reinforce my point in a passive-agressive manner.

  2. Neal said

    Hi, Greg,

    You’ve got two senses of like in your examples. In He was like, all mad and junk, it’s the pause-filling, hedging like, the same as in He was like, 100 years old or something. I’ll call this like-1. But in So she’s like, “I don’t care,” and I’m, you know, like, “Whatever.”, it’s the quotative like indicating someone’s speech or thoughts. I’ll call this like-2.

    But now I wonder: If we have a pair of homophones here, could we use them next to each other? I can say, “He made the duck duck,” but I’m not so sure about “He was like-2, like-1, ‘Whatever,'” meaning, “He seemed to be thinking, you know, something along the lines of ‘whatever.'”

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