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This Column Is Aimed at the 'Likes' of You!

Rob Kyff on

In an interview for a documentary about Bill Clinton, his White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers made this comment about the extraordinary talents of her former boss: "I just don't think his likes will come our way again."

While many would agree with her suggestion that Bill Clinton was a one-of-a-kind political magician, some might wonder about her phrase "his likes."

Should Myers have said "his like" instead of "his likes"? Was she denigrating or praising Clinton? Is this idiom even good English?

I'll answer the last question first. Although the use of "likes" to mean "such people as" or "such things as" has been derided as casual and colloquial, this term has been standard in English for more than 200 years. No less a literary light than poet Robert Browning wrote, in apparent self-disparagement, that selling 2,500 of his books was "a good sale for the likes of me."

But does "the likes of" always connote disapproval?

When followed by a single object, it usually does. Every TV sitcom seems to have a character who snarls, "I have no use for the likes of him!"

Even highbrows use "likes" to express scorn, as in this example from the New York Times Book Review: "(He) castigates his favorite grandson for ... marrying the likes of Anna." Republican strategist Sara Longwell recently said on CNN that House Speaker Mike Johnson must work with Democrats or "play ball with the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene."

 

Yet sometimes "the likes of" can also indicate approval or respect, e.g., "It's too bad that the likes of Paul Douglas, Ginger Rogers and William Holden got caught up in it" (New Yorker); "(a collection of) goblets and bowls coveted by the likes of The Smithsonian and The Metropolitan Museum of Art" (newspaper ad); "The table stakes for A.I. start-ups to compete with the likes of Microsoft and Google are in the billions of dollars" (New York Times).

In phrases such as "we won't see his like again" and "the like of which we haven't seen," the singular "like," rather than "likes," is usually used to convey praise. But Myers ignored that subtlety when she used "his likes" with regard to Clinton, and so did former President Donald Trump when he recently pledged, "I will deliver a Trump middle-class tax cut the likes of which you've never seen."

So by choosing "like" instead of "likes," were Myers and Trump condemning Clinton or a tax cut, respectively? Let me take a wild guess here. No!

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.


Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.

 

 

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