December 2006 Vol. 11 Issue 4

Grammar Trap: like vs. as



I could begin a discussion of “like” vs. “as” with a bubble-headed wisecrack. But resorting to such a gimmick would, like, totally insult you.

What’s more, it misses the point. These words have similar uses and you don’t have to be a Valley Girl or Boy to confuse them.

“Like” is a preposition and “as” is a conjunction — so there’s a very complicated explanation. Here’s my best stab at simplifying it.

Use “like” in comparisons when you mean “in the manner of” or “to the same degree as.”

Example: You talk like a walrus with marbles in its mouth.

That is, “you” talk in the manner of a marble-mouthed walrus, but you aren’t equal to a walrus or serving the function of one.

Use “as” in comparisons when you mean to show equality or “in the function of.”

Example: You acted as a comedian for the group when situations got too tense.

In this case, you=comedian. You served the comedian’s function.

What about those times when you’re presenting examples?

The rule is the same, but Writer’s Block offers an easy to remember rule of thumb.

“Like” generally excludes things.

“As” generally includes things.

In other words, use “like” when making a comparison to just one other thing. Use “as” (or “such as”) when making a comparison to several things.

Example: When you have a toy like a bag of marbles, it’s easy to talk to a walrus.

You’re comparing toy to one thing (bag of marbles), so use “like.”

Example: When you have a toy, such as a bag of marbles or a sack of doorknobs, it’s easy to talk to a walrus.

You’re comparing toy to a number of things (bag of marbles and sack of doorknobs), so use “such as.”

Trust me, this can get a lot more complicated and we could find all kinds of exceptions to these rules. But, like, I totally don’t care to go into them right now.

Kevin Leigh Smith, kevlsmith@purdue.edu
 
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