Teenagers talk like this all the time, but it’s not limited to teens. I’ve heard full-grown adults describing conversations like this:

I was like, “What?!”

And he was like, “Yup.”

And I was like, “No way!” 

My question is this: Is it okay to use was like as a dialogue tag? To the grammar-conscious, it seems wrong or at least odd, right? Shouldn’t it be replaced with something like…

I said,”What?!”

And he said, “Yup.”

And I said, “No way!” 

My answer is: maybe, but maybe not.

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The use of was like as a dialogue signifier is idiomatic in casual, spoken English. I don’t imagine you’ll find it in written form outside of social media, but you are likely to hear it spoken in all kinds of informal contexts.

The reason I’m not sure the said version is necessarily better is that I don’t believe speakers who use was like this way mean it to be synonymous with said. They seem to be approximating a conversation, rather than quoting it directly. In cases like the “cool Todd” example above, it’s possible that no literal words were spoken at all. Todd may have been merely silently projecting a cool attitude.

In other words, was like always indicates a rough and subjective simulation of what was said. It means not said as much as said something like. It’s a kind of shorthand for people who aren’t quoting verbatim and don’t want to be taken literally.

Is it correct?

That’s always the question, right? Should I embrace this idiom or condemn it? As always, it depends upon what you mean by correct. Was like as a dialogue tag certainly seems common, and it’s not new–I recall speaking this way myself in the ’80s. In other words, it seems to have worked its way into everyday speech. It also seems to have a particular use that other expressions don’t quite capture. I therefore think it’s not worth objecting to in casual speech.

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It’s not, however, accepted in edited prose. You won’t find it in any serious writing. That’s a clear indication that it hasn’t been formally embraced. Wisdom dictates that you avoid it in formal speaking and all but the most casual writing.

Note: I’ve written elsewhere of the tendency of (typically young) speakers to use like excessively as a verbal tick. This is a different issue.

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Feel free to leave your comments below. I love to hear the opinions of readers!