Tell it as it is

Caz was a mainstay of the culture copy desk at The New York Times. Though Caz (short for Don Caswell) had a heart of pure mush, he enjoyed playing the role of crusty old newspaper guy until the day he retired, less than a year before he died in 2005 of all those cigarettes newspaper guys used to smoke. As his too-brief obit in The Times said, he was “an uncommon perfectionist.” But I could always catch him on one point: like versus as.

No matter what kind of tirade he was on, generally about negligence on the part of the backfield (Times jargon for assigning/content/story editors like me), I had only to wait until he used like as a conjunction. “You mean as if,” I would inform him, and he would melt into laughter.

I happen to be sensitive to the difference because I was publicly humiliated by my ninth-grade English teacher for using like incorrectly. I don’t remember what I said; it was a long time ago. But perhaps I was influenced by  a catchphrase of the late 1960s and early ’70s: Tell it like it is. It is, of course, ungrammatical. (Or so my English teacher would say.)


That sentence consists of two clauses: tell it and it is. To join two clauses, you need a conjunction, a part of speech whose name comes from two Latin roots, con- (with) and iunct- (join). Strictly speaking, like is not a conjunction; it’s a preposition. (To quote Madonna, “Like a Virgin.” Or the movie title “Like Water for Chocolate.”) So the catchphrase should have been the headline of this post.

Some examples of like/as confusion from student work this semester:


But like Edmunds noted, Qiu finds himself stuck with a circle of Chinese friends despite his desire to make more American friends.

This one is easy: two clauses are being connected. It should read: But as Edmunds noted . . . 



Dialog in the Dark is a special exhibition that represents an opportunity to rediscover the city like a blind person does.

A blind person does is a clause. So it needs as.


On the other hand:

Those people can still enjoy life as everybody else.

Everybody else is not a clause (no verb); it’s the object of a preposition, which as is not. It should read:  . . . like everybody else.


Sometimes sentence construction makes the question trickier:

This feeling when you’re applying mascara and your eyes suddenly look like you’re 20 can’t be described.

Technically, it should be as if you’re 20.  but in this case, correctness clutters the sentence. So you might try rewriting. One possibility:

This feeling when you’re applying mascara and your eyes suddenly look 20 can’t be described.


This feeling when you’re applying mascara and your eyes suddenly make you look 20 can’t be described.


In fairness, the distinction between like and as is blurring as more and more authoritative sources accept like as a conjunction. (But not AP Style.) Even in The Times, a music critic recently wrote:

She was standing in an aisle in the Met’s auditorium during a rehearsal break one recent Friday, staring up at the stage like it was a gifted child having trouble fulfilling its potential.
He meant as if. Caz is either spinning in his grave or feeling very relieved.
After a meeting last week, a student e-mailed me:
Like always, it’s fun and rewarding talking to you.
She meant As always. But I hope so.
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