As You Like It

Avoiding “such as” problems

Journalists often have difficulty with highly focused grammatical concepts like subject-verb agreement, dangling participles, whether “none” is plural or singular, and whether to introduce this kind of list with “like” or “such as.”

There are two schools of thought on this. The strict school maintains that the previous sentence was incorrectly structured. That school believes the list of problems that journalists have difficulty with should be introduced with “such as.”

The other school is cool with “like” introducing the list.

The strict school insists that “like” is incorrect because the list of problems journalists have includes “whether to introduce this kind of list with ‘like’ or ‘such as.’” Thus, these proper students would say, that particular problem is not “like” the problems journalists have difficulty with; it is a problem journalists have difficulty with. “Like,” they insist, means “liken to” or “similar to,” and not “the same as.” To include “like” in the list, they sniff, one must say that “journalists have trouble with such problems as whether to use ‘like’ or ‘such as.’” Or, to put it another way, they believe that “like” can be used only for when the list excludes the thing, and “such as” when the list includes it. Which almost never happens in real life.

The rebels, for their part, are, like, whatever. No one’s going to misunderstand someone who says “He eats only sugary foods like chocolate, cotton candy, and soda pop” and think that he does not eat those foods. To use “such as,” they argue, sounds stilted and too formal. And, they further crow, the dictionary defines “like” as “having almost or exactly the same qualities, characteristics, etc.; similar; equal.” They might argue that the insistence on “such as” might arise from the confusion over the supposed misuse of “like” as a conjunction connecting two parts of the sentence, both with a verb. (The hoariest example of that is the old commercial proclaiming that “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” at which generations of English teachers have wagged their fingers and reminded their charges that “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.”)

The problem with the strict school is that people tie themselves in knots over the “rules” to avoid a knuckles-rapping over the “improper” use of “like.” So a phrase similar to “writers like Shakespeare,” where the intention is to call to mind writers with similar characteristics to Shakespeare’s, becomes “writers such as Shakespeare.” Such writers as that, Theodore Bernstein says, are “nitpickers.”

While usage authorities have argued for centuries over whether “like” can introduce a list of items that includes the example being discussed, they’re losing. They may not like it, but such is life.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.