By integrating new styles of speech into dialogue, authors can give their characters distinctive, believable voices.

Whether it’s the creation of new words, pronunciations, spellings, or grammar features, innovation in language is typically spearheaded by younger speakers. “As with any [language] form involved in change,” Alexandra D’Arcy explains, “adolescents are…not the only members of the community using these forms, but they use them at higher frequencies than older age cohorts within the population” (2007, 402). For writers and editors, this difference provides an excellent opportunity to differentiate characters by how often they use (or don’t use) new language innovations, creating characters that feel innately older or younger to the readers.


D’Arcy explores this issue in her article “Like and Language Ideology: Disentangling Fact from Fiction.” Specifically, she examines how the younger generation’s use of the word like has led to multiple myths about its usage that seek to discredit their ways of speaking. Using a corpus of spoken English collected in Toronto, Canada, from 2002 to 2004, D’Arcy dispels the myth that like is meaningless by examining its syntactic use in real conversations.

According to the corpus data, like has two functions: traditional and vernacular. The traditional functions of like include that of verb (“I like this”), noun (“and the like”), adverb (“do it like me”), conjunction (“we are like two moths to a flame”), and suffix (“I enjoy rogue-like games”). The vernacular functions of like include that of quotative complementizer (“he was like…”), approximate adverb (“he’s like six-foot-something”), discourse marker (“like, I don’t want to do that”), and discourse particle (“she’s like so pretty”).

The data D’Arcy collected shows the clear trend that older generations use like in its vernacular functions, but younger generations do so more frequently. Like, in all its forms, appears most frequently in age groups ranging from 10–12 and 17–39 before dropping off to be less frequent in age groups of 40 and older (2007, 389). Repeatedly throughout the article, D’Arcy cites other research backing the claim that this spike in younger generations’ use of like reflects ongoing language change—one such reference, “The Sociolinguistic Distribution of and Attitudes Toward Focuser like and Quotative like,” is linked below this article.

D’Arcy says, “In recognizing that numerous functions of like are operative in vernacular usage, the myth of meaninglessness is simultaneously demystified.” The vernacular uses of like are logical in their usage, and the lay speaker can easily learn the different uses of the vernacular form. The refusal of a competent English speaker to use these forms of like is not a reflection of the vernacular like’s illegitimacy but of speakers’ refusal to adapt to normal language change.

“In recognizing that numerous functions of like are operative in vernacular usage, the myth of meaninglessness is simultaneously demystified.”

Alexandra D’Arcy (2007)


Like is a useful tool for authors seeking to distinguish the voices of their characters from one another. Younger characters may use the word like in the vernacular ways described by D’Arcy, while older characters may restrain their use of like to its more traditional functions. 

D’Arcy’s research can be applied beyond just like: differing attitudes in any language change can help an author’s world become more real for the reader. Authors can create realistic conflict between characters of different ages by including the different generational usage styles, including the use of slang or vernacular like that D’Arcy studied. Editors can encourage authors to implement this conflict into their stories. 

Through applying these strategies, authors and editors can ensure that young characters sound young and old characters sound old—thereby connecting with their audiences and ensuring that characters have distinct, accurate voices.

To learn more about the different functions of like, read the full article:

D’Arcy, Alexandra. 2007. “Like and Language Ideology: Disentangling Fact from Fiction.” American Speech 84 no. 4: 386–419.

—Aaron Green, Editing Research


Find more research

Learn more about like and generational language change by reading Jennifer Daily-O’Cain’s (2003) “The Sociolinguistic Distribution of and Attitudes Toward Focuser like and Quotative like.” Journal of Sociolinguistics no. 4(1): 60–80.

Read Anna-Brita Strenström’s (n.d.) blog post for an overview of how teens use slang: “From Slang to Slanguage: A Description Based on Teenage Talk.” Linguisticus (blog). Accessed on February 13, 2024.

Read Sali Tagliamonte’s (2016) book to learn more about how teens talk to each other: The Language of Adolescents. Cambridge University Press.