Like and He and Cigarettes

I had to pause the other day when I read a sentence similar to this one: She, like he, enjoys a good movie. That seems to be constructed correctly: she enjoys a movie and so does he. Two subjects, both in the correct form as subjects (she and he, not her and him)—what’s there not to like? The like.

This example involves a long-standing feud over the word like, standardly a preposition, but often employed in more casual diction as a conjunction. Those of us of a certain age will remember a popular advertising campaign for a cigarette which tasted good like a cigarette should. The prescriptionists said the preposition like should be the conjunction as, and the descriptionists said the prescriptionists lived too far from the real world—and probably didn’t smoke either. If we let those neighbors quarrel on as they will, there’s still something to learn about sentence construction in understanding just what all the yelling over the fence was and is about.

Prepositions and conjunctions are two kinds of connectives, words whose function it is to bring other words into meaningful association. A preposition is followed by a noun or pronoun, a conjunction by an entire clause. A preposition, in other words, will have a noun or pronoun as its object, and the two thereby form what is called a prepositional phrase. Importantly, moreover, the object of a preposition must be in the objective case. A conjunction, on the other hand, will introduce a subject and verb working together to make another assertion, which is to say that a conjunction is followed not by a noun or pronoun, but by a clause. And although grammar does not usually refer to the object of a conjunction, that is effectively how a clause functions after its conjunction.

So how apply all that theory to our example? Let’s do a quick analysis. In the sentence She, like he, enjoys a good movie, we have only one verb, enjoys, and so we can see the division between subject and predicate fairly easily: She, like he, | enjoys a good movie. That helps us isolate the subject phrase to the left side of the vertical bar, and an examination of that phrase reveals that the subject is she: that pronoun is both in the correct position for a positive declarative sentence and in the correct form, the nominative case she instead of the object case her. Subjects are (almost) always in the nominative case.

Now comes the smoke and fire. If we stand with the traditional rules of grammar and sign on with the prescriptionists, we will conclude that like is a preposition and therefore must have its object in the objective case him instead of the nominative case he. Thus: She, like him, enjoys a good movie. Our ear might not agree, but our ear is much too sophisticated an instrument to discern matters of logic. Logic follows rules, and the rules say that like is a preposition and the object of a preposition is in the objective case. And that’s that.

And on the principle that in art things have their place, that harmony depends on order and order on function (a classical principle if there ever was one), it’s going to be difficult to disagree with the prescriptionists. But we don’t have to be martinets about it. If the writer were to object that she, like him, enjoys a good movie sounds pretentious and too correct, many other possibilities exist: both she and he enjoy a good movie, she and he both enjoy a good movie, she enjoys a good movie, and he does too.

All of which is to observe that good form, with all its rules, is meant, ironically, not to say no, but to say yes—to make other possibilities possible when we think imaginatively beyond a requirement.


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