The critical meaning of 'like'

Posted: Jul 31, 2006 12:01 AM

Anthony Tommasini, who reviews classical music for The New York Times, commented in March that most concert programs focus on masters "LIKE Bach, Haydn and Schumann," while others turn to musical theater figures "LIKE Irving Berlin." (My emphasis. A point approaches.)

Patrick Healy, a reporter for the Times on its City Hall beat, informed us in April that critics of Mayor Giuliani had put together a two-hour movie about his leadership during the 9/11 crisis. The film will be released in New York and also "in cities LIKE Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco." (Please stick around. One more paragraph.)

Patricia Leigh Brown, a reporter in the Times' West Coast bureau, filed a feature in May about a reorganized newspaper in Marin County, Calif. Its former editor attracted readers through skillful reporting and "popular features LIKE a comic strip."

So, what's the point? The point is that through constructions such as these, the good gray Times locks itself into the gauzy like instead of the specific such as. Yes! In its Manual of Style & Usage, the Times decrees that "like" is "the preferred expression in this kind of phrase." As an example of good usage, it offers "painters like Rubens." To write of painters "such as Rubens," says the Times, would be "stilted." The erring "such as," says the Times, usually should be replaced by "like."

Well, bah! Horsefeathers! Only the most slovenly writers will abandon an honest, unassuming "such as" in favor of a deceptive "like." Who are these masters LIKE Bach? Where are these cities LIKE Los Angeles and Seattle? Last April the Times' reporter in Omaha wrote about politics in "states LIKE Montana, Ohio and Rhode Island." Tell us, O Timesperson, how is Montana LIKE Rhode Island? A few months earlier, a business writer reported that the popularity of anti-impotence drugs will gradually increase as diseases "like diabetes" become more common. If there are many diseases LIKE diabetes, mister, you don't want to have them.

A hundred Horrid Examples could be culled from 10 days of the Times. Typically, the Sunday book section puffs "writers LIKE Martin Amis." An education writer discusses the special problems of foreign-born students, "in subjects LIKE engineering." At random, one may turn to celebrities LIKE Harold Pinter, famous photographers LIKE Diane Arbus, and chief executives LIKE Dennis Koslowski.

This syntactical constipation is so unnecessary! A year ago the Times' gifted Manola Dargis commented in the Arts Section on "such leading world auteurs as Hou Hsiao-Hsien." She did not write, "auteurs LIKE!" She wrote "auteurs SUCH AS!" Bully for her!

Try it, you writers! Everybody else prefers the modest "such as." In The Washington Post, for example, one may read about cities SUCH AS Playa del Carmen, strong women SUCH AS Audrey Garnett and Google rivals SUCH AS Yahoo. In the Economist magazine in May, we could read about "a new generation of playwrights SUCH AS Arnold Wesker and David Hare" and "war-torn places SUCH AS Congo and Cambodia."

Everybody else gets it right. In USA Today, one reads about "combat films SUCH AS 'Bataan.'" USA's man in Santa Fe writes about "less expensive places SUCH AS Albuquerque." Joan Biskupic, that newspaper's first-rate reporter at the Supreme Court, analyzes "issues SUCH AS abortion and affirmative action."

And without any coaching from me, Hearst columnist Marianne Means writes about "unpopular aspects of birth control, SUCH AS ..." If Marianne likes "such as," that settles it. Doesn't it?