Like, such as, and why the difference matters

When I copy-edit, there’s an invisible checklist of things I look for. Obviously, grammar and spelling errors are the most important things to fix, as they look unprofessional and detract from the clarity of the piece. However, there are a number of things that may not be entirely incorrect, but that render a thought or sentence unclear. An article or story should be easy to read. That doesn’t mean it has to use only words of fewer than four syllables, or short sentences, or deal only with simple concepts. Even a high-level piece of writing that encompasses difficult or challenging ideas can be made easier to read by improving the clarity and flow within the writing.

One of my personal pet peeves is the use of the word “like” when the phrase “such as” would be more accurate. The word “like” implies comparison (she had spiky hair, like a porcupine’s quills) rather than providing specific examples (he wanted a reliable car, like a Honda or a Toyota). By using the word “like,” the person in the second example is actually implying that he wants a car that resembles or shares features with a Honda or a Toyota, but is not necessarily one of those. I would change the word “like” to “such as” to clarify that the person wants a reliable car, and that examples of specific cars he might want include Hondas and Toyotas. This clarifies the intent of the speaker. It’s a subtle difference, but one that helps make it easier for the reader to understand exactly what is being implied.

Save “like” for situations where you are comparing two objects or, of course, when using it as a verb: She likes desserts, such as pie, cake, and brownies. (See what I did there?)

When you write a phrase containing “like x, y, or z” ask yourself: do I mean one or more of those things specifically? If so, then use “such as.” If not, and you are simply providing examples of things that are similar or display characteristics of the thing you’re discussing, then “like” is just fine. I find it easy to remember this way: “specific” and “such as” both begin with S.

I have heard some writers say that using “such as” instead of “like” feels too formal or stilted for the style of writing they are going for, but this can be compensated for by using contractions (don’t, shouldn’t, etc.) as well as shorter words and more active verbs to indicate a more casual overall tone.

Do articles such as this one make you feel like a genius (because you already knew this rule)? Let me know! I’d love to hear your writing and editing pet peeves (and perhaps write about one of them in future). Leave me a comment below.

One thought on “Like, such as, and why the difference matters

  1. Yay! There is nothing like a solid article on grammar choices to make me want to do things such as dance, sing, and smile! 🙂

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