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'Like,' Is It Right?

Many adults feel that teens have a tendency to butcher the English language, but it is not necessarily so.

Early Show National Correspondent Tracy Smith explains in this week's Study Hall Report.

Sometimes people over-use the word "like" in casual conversations — as in "like, Michael," or "Why can't I have, like, a raise?" Now, a professor at one university says that the word "like" adds meaning to language. But to some people, that's, "like," ridiculous.

When students at Temple University gather to discuss their favorite class, they often use their favorite word.

"And you get to, like, reach into your, like, creative energy and, like, just lay it out there because, like, no one's judging because, like, everyone's doing it," explained one student.

She sounds typical, but according to one professor, she's typically correct.

Muffy Siegel is a linguist and professor of English. That's right: English.

"'Like' does dramatically change the meaning of a sentence," she said.

Siegel began studying "like" after listening to her two teenage daughters.

"Girls use 'like' more than boys but that's probably no big surprise," said Siegel.

And in her research, Siegel posed a question designed to bring out the "likes" in sentences. She asked young people, "What is an individual?" Smith used the question in the field to discover what people would say.

"Like, first you go in and you think everyone's gonna judge, and you're all, like, nervous and once you see everyone's doing the same thing you're all just out there, like, … like, don't try to be something you're not in your own element," said one girl.

"It's like, everyone has like a certain quality that makes them unique, and so that's what makes them an individual," said another student.

Tracy Smith explained to the students Siegel's theory on the word "like." What were there responses?

"Like, OK," said one girl.

When Smith explained her experiment to the students, they became self-conscious.

"I had a kid in my class last semester that used it every other word and it made me not want to listen to hear him talk," said a student.

"It was annoying to hear. I just, like, didn't want to pay attention to anything he said," instantly the girl catches what she just said. "I said it again, didn't I?"

"I am not condoning the use of the word like around parents," said Siegel.

Some of those parents say Siegel is wrong. She received emails accusing her of ruining the language. But, she says, she is sticking by her study.

"All of the kids in my study are now in college … many in elite colleges," explained Siegel. "They are still saying 'like' to their friends."

And, to students, it seems like much ado about nothing.

"If a word is as common as 'like,' and the language purists are upset about it — and they are upset — then probably 'like' is here to stay," said Siegel.