It’s, like, a big question about “like”

I wonder how many teachers of writing have been tracking student use of “like” as a kind of punctuation mark. I certainly have been—and I counted 48 uses of the word in ONE 15-minute oral presentation just a few years ago. In this student’s case, “like” seemed to be a verbal tic, akin to “um” or “ok” or “you know.” I remember working with this student and asking her to tape record herself in casual conversation and in other presentations to see if she could analyze how and when she was using “like.” She even took to wearing an elastic band around her wrist and snapping it every time she said “like.” By the end of the year, she had pretty much broken this habit and dropped by to tell me she viewed this as a signal accomplishment.
But “like” isn’t always so egregious or so distracting as this verbal tic was. It can sometimes mark a statement as important, saying in essence, “listen up”: “He’s, like, always mixed up.” In a Times opinion piece, Professor John McWhorter takes up for at least some uses of “like,” noting that
We associate [like] with ingrained hesitation, a fear of venturing a definite statement. Yet the hesitation can be seen less as a matter of confidence than one of consideration.” “Like” often functions to acknowledge objection while underlining one’s own point. To say, “This is, like, the only way to make it work,” is to implicitly recognize that this news may be unwelcome to the hearer, and to soften the blow by offering one’s suggestion discreetly swathed in the garb of hypothetical-ness. . . . What’s actually happening is that casual American speech is, in its “like” fetish, more polite than it was before.

Of course, many will disagree with McWhorter—as did Val Swisher in a blog posting entitled “It’s Like Totally. . . huh? How the New York Times Got It Wrong.” In her view, what I have always called “filler” words (like “like” or “ok” or “you know”) are distractions—the very opposite of the politeness and consideration McWhorter wants to ascribe to “like.” As Swisher says,
I find it quite surprising that The Times would print this type of nonsense. Our language does not advance because people toss in words that break up their thoughts and our listening. . . . I do understand that public speaking is something that can be foreboding and that people are riddled with anxiety at the mere thought of speaking to a group. And, for those people, saying “like” or “ya know” is not done on purpose. Those slips are just nerves speaking. But to say that nonsense syllables spoken in the middle of actual information is a cause for rejoicing is, like, ya know, wrong. (
My own sense is that the use of “like” peaked several years ago and is now on the wane, at least in northern California. I still hear it, but not to the fetishized degree I did a few years ago. At my school, this shift may be due to the emphasis we are putting on oral/multimedia presentations: students know that they need to learn to stand and deliver, and to do so in the most professional ways possible. They increasingly do not want to show up on Facebook or You Tube “sounding like a broken record” as one student put it to me.
Any thoughts out there about the “like” question??