Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Like It Or Not

Posted by Neal on April 1, 2008

I’m sure all my grammar-conscious readers have laughed over sentences like this one:

I wish I had a house like you.

Ha, ha! Funny, right? The speaker wishes he had a house that resembles you! Or maybe he means a house that is as friendly, supportive, and nonjudgmental as you are. Or maybe it’s just a mistake, and the speaker meant to say

I wish I had a house like yours.

And then there’s George Michael, who sings,

I know not everybody
has a body like you.

This one could pass, depending on your philosophical stance on whether one consists only of one’s body or if there’s a soul that persists after the body is gone. So I won’t pick on that one.

But even though careful writers will avoid errors like the above, there’s a whole class of widespread similar mistakes that I’ve never heard a complaint about. Get a load of these:

  • In a clublike atmosphere, Jackson’s Steakhouse satisfies.
    No: The atmosphere is not like a club; it’s like a club’s atmosphere
  • Or the apes with human-like feet, adapted for bipedal movement?
    No: Their feet are not like humans; their feet are like humans’ feet.
  • The animal also had a parrotlike beak and a large horn over its nose.
    No: Its beak was not like a parrot; its beak was like a parrot’s beak.
  • I had a parrotlike tendency to repeat things.
    No: Your tendency to repeat things was not like a parrot; it was like a parrot’s tendency to repeat things.
  • Some of these fireworks are not just loud pops but some make cannonlike sounds.
    No: The sounds are not like a cannon; they are like a cannon’s sounds.
  • Triceratops possessed a strong, turtlelike beak.
    No: Its beak was not like a turtle; it was like a turtle’s beak.
  • Tirelessly touring, the band has a cult-like status to their die-hard army of fans.
    No: The band’s status is not like a cult; it is like the status of a cult.
  • News organisations should not go into ostrich-like denial but open themselves up.
    No: Their denial is not like an ostrich; it is like an ostrich’s denial.
  • An octopus-like obsession with loyalty
    No: their obsession is not like an octopus; it is like an octopus’s obsession.
  • Momus continues his stalker-like obsession with Marxy.
    No: his obsession is not like a stalker; it is like a stalker’s obsession.
  • Its primary tenet seems to be the lemming-like tendency to mob attack anyone who doesn’t bow before it.
    No: its tendency is not like a lemming; it is like a lemming’s tendency.

Now for some good examples:

  • Ankylosaurus protected itself with spikes, bony plates of armor, and a long clublike tail.
    Yes: Its tail was like a club.
  • Discusses the selection and care of the parrotlike bird known as the cockatiel.
    Yes: The cockatiel is like a parrot.
  • He aims the cannonlike weapon.
    Yes: The weapon is like a cannon.
  • The turtlelike device is the sibling to Roomba, which had already won our hearts for its automated vacuuming.
    Yes: The device is like a turtle.
  • Leica has a cult-like following among classic camera aficionados.
    Yes: Its following is like a cult.
  • The earliest fossil of ostrich-like birds is the Central European Palaeotis.
    Yes: The birds are like ostriches.

As for the bad examples, they should of course be corrected to human’s-like feet, parrot’s-like beak/tendency, cannon’s-like sound, turtle’s-like beak, cult’s-like status, etc. It’s a disgrace how even the best writers are oblivious to this lapse in logic. To those of you with sufficient regard for proper grammar and attention to detail to have already been taking care to write ostrich’s-like denial, stalker’s-like obsession, and lemming’s-like tendency, I salute you! You have the souls of grammarians! Or should I say, grammarian’s-like souls!

12 Responses to “Like It Or Not”

  1. Can we really add -like after a clitic?

  2. adjusting said

    Everybody’s a clitic.

  3. Lol. In context that was quite clever, I must say.

  4. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    “Parrot’s-like tendency” and “cult’s-like status” sound just plain weird to my ears: nobody thinks that a churchgoer’s “childlike faith” resembles a child, so why would “parrotlike tendency” be a mistake?

    Despite that objection, I agree that the examples with prepositional phrases are wrong. The only other interpretation of “I wish I had a house like you” that makes grammatical sense, would be “You have a house and I don’t; I wish the latter weren’t true.”

  5. The Ridger said

    Snerk. You almost had me. Brilliant.

  6. Neal said

    Look, even Mark Liberman does it:
    “Liberman said today, ‘I have a high regard for the BBC’s upper-crust pomposity and tabloid-like credulity.'”

  7. TootsNYC said

    try “stalker-style obsession”

  8. Ellen K. said

    It seems to me a stalker-like obsession and a stalker-style obsession aren’t the same. Stalker-like may refer only to the person’s thinking, whereas stalker-style additionally implies stalker-like actions.

    It’s probably pointless to make a serious comment responding to responses to an April 1st post, but ah well.

  9. dgm said

    This post reminded me that I used to watch KPBS public programming, and at the end of a program a voice would say the program was made possible by “viewers like you.” Then the screen would flash the words “Viewers Like You.” With clock-like regularity I would always say back to the TV “Viewers like me! They really really like me!”

  10. Lee said

    🙂

  11. In Cantonese you can say, Your hair looks like a brush, but your face looks like a criminal.

  12. Jackson said

    The sarcasm that this post is dripping with is delicious…I wonder how many of you took it literally…and then now are realizing the irony behind that? YES? Lots of you? I hope so. That would be great.

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