In a Facebook discussion about my recent blog post “Shibboleths and Other Pitfalls,” my friend Greg Feeley, writer, critic, and adjunct professor of writing, posed a question: “What about ‘like’ / ‘as if’ (or ‘as though’)? I still teach my students the distinction, because they should know formal English — the kind the people who read their interview cover letters will judge them by — as well as the English they already speak perfectly well.”
He’s right, both about “like” the conjunction and about the general principle. I grew up with the ad campaign for Winston cigarettes whose key sentence was “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” I remember English teachers and other adults going up in the air about “like a cigarette should.”
“As!” they’d yell. “It should be ‘as’!”
They probably said stuff like “the youth of America is going to hell in a handbasket,” or maybe western civilization was going to hell in a handbasket, and all because of this damned cigarette ad.
I probably went around saying stuff like “Say it like you mean it” just to piss them off.
“Like” the conjunction may have been around since Chaucer’s time, as the American Heritage Dictionary notes, but plenty of well-educated English-speakers don’t like it at all. They may dislike split infinitives, place great value on the which/that distinction, or subscribe to other shibboleths and zombie rules whose justification is shaky . . .
But, as Greg points out, they may be the ones reading your interview cover letters, or your agent queries, or your grant proposals.
They’re the gatekeepers, in other words. Gatekeepers are the ones you have to get past in order to get what you want: an agent, a publishing contract, a job, a grant, whatever it is.
I was a gatekeeper once. Between 1989 and 1991 I edited three original anthologies of women’s fantasy and science fiction: Memories and Visions, The Women Who Walk Through Fire, and Tales of Magic Realism by Women (Dreams in a Minor Key). Over three years I read nearly a thousand stories — and accepted a grand total of 46.
Think about it. For every story I accepted, I rejected about 21. At first, I considered every good story — and there were a lot of them — a possible YES. Before long, the numbers got to me. My attitude changed. When I started reading each story, I was looking for reasons to say NO.
Before that, I’d heard editors and agents say that within a very few paragraphs of a story, a very few pages of a novel, they knew whether the work was publishable. How unfair! I thought. How could they possibly tell?
I read most of those thousand f/sf stories through to the end. I learned to trust my snap judgments. A story had to be more than “good” to make it into the YES or even the MAYBE pile. I learned to look for intangibles: energy, originality, clues that I’d never read anything like this before.
After that I had much more sympathy for the gatekeepers.
Even the ones who are using shibboleths and zombie rules to stick your query or cover letter or proposal in the NO pile. They’re probably swamped with good letters and applications. Their “sort” parameters may be flawed, but they’ve got to keep the MAYBE pile down to manageable size.
The moral of the story is that when you’re dealing with gatekeepers, give the gatekeepers as few reasons as possible to say NO. Follow the appropriate guidelines. Use standard formatting, or whatever format the organization or publication prescribes. And avoid the shibboleths and other pitfalls that may set the gatekeepers off. Pay attention to your teacher, your editor, and all those handy “10 things to never do in your writing” lists that are all over the Web. (Yes, I just split an infinitive. This is why I like being my own gatekeeper.)
If you’re an editor, teacher, reader of grant proposals, or other gatekeeper, you can do your bit too. Placate the shibboleths but don’t use them to sort people into SMART and STUPID, YES and NO.
Think of the language as your wardrobe. When you dress for a cocktail party, you don’t put on the same clothes you wear to do barn chores. Clothes don’t make the person, and neither does word choice, but there are plenty of people out there who think otherwise. Be prepared.