Change in the syntax & semantics of 'be like' quotatives

The study in a sentence

Be like, now widely used as a quotative, has picked up the eventive (or 'dynamic') meaning of reporting direct speech, but at the same time retained its stative meaning as a descriptor of reported thoughts, and so has evolved to become multi-functional.

The question

Before the 1980s, the expression “I’m like” was not used to introduce direct speech, but in the last 35 years or so this so-called be like quotative has been spreading like wildfire across the English-speaking world, supplanting more traditional quotatives such as “say”.

Key concept

Semantically, a quotative verb like “say” is used in an eventive sense: it reports an event of someone actually speaking.

  • I'm like, "oh my god!"

An interesting thing about be like is that it can also describe the speaker’s feelings at the time, through 'reported thoughts', in a stative use:

  • "And if you were nursing the baby while you were skydiving the baby would be like, okay."

Here, be like describes a state of mind, i.e. how someone felt about something rather than something they actually said (small babies can't talk). Earlier research suggests the origin of be like was this stative use, for “reported thoughts”, but that be like only afterwards took on the eventive function of traditional quotatives like “say”.

Has the meaning of 'be like' really changed to include a true eventive meaning?

Has the new eventive meaning of 'be like' replaced the older stative meaning, or been added to it?

How can you investigate a change in meaning?

It can be difficult to use corpus data to investigate meaning because the interpretation that the speaker intended (stative or eventive) cannot always be easily identified from the context.

In this study, the authors carried out a controlled judgment experiment. They presented speakers with a set of specially designed test sentences and asked them to rate how “good” (i.e. acceptable) the sentences sound.

The answer

  • For sentences constructed to encourage an eventive reading, many younger speakers found the be like sentences just as acceptable as those with say. The authors conclude from this that the eventive meaning has indeed entered the grammar of younger speakers.
  • Comparing responses from younger and older participants, the authors found that neither group treated be like differently in state- or event-biased sentences. This suggests that the interpretation of be like as a direct quotative is not displacing the older stative meaning.
    • Be like is thus now multi-functional; speakers can use it to introduce both “reported thoughts” and “direct speech”.

Classroom activities

Lead in task

Exploring your own judgements about say and be like, and whether they can be used in the same contexts.

Extension task

Making predictions about the judgements of other groups of speakers, and (optionally) testing them out in a mini-investigation.

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

IMD be like quotatives

Meet the author

Eytan Zweig

Eytan teaches modules in Semantics, Syntax and Neurolinguistics

Read the paper

Haddican, B., Zweig, E., & Johnson, D. E. (2015). Change in the syntax and semantics of be like quotatives. In T. Biberauer, & G. Walkden (Eds.), Syntax Over Time: Lexical, Morphological, and Information-Structural Interactions (pp. 54–71). Oxford: Oxford University Press.