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The Grammar of Slang

by Juachoerin

The speech of today’s young people is filled with words and expressions not found in formal English which greatly enhance the sound of their language, making it very expressive and colorful. And when they write in their own language, it’s beautiful too. Of course, the main thing that distinguishes it is the presence of new words, and of new uses for old words.

But the most interesting thing about modern slang is that, in addition to new words and meanings, it has produced new grammatical relationships among words. Some new words today—and some old words with new meanings—don’t behave much like any of the “parts of speech” (noun, verb, etc.) that ordinary grammar deals with. In order to accurately describe they way they do behave, we have to define and discuss some new parts of speech. And, in my view, the fact that they aren’t “standard English” is not a good reason for refusing to recognize them.

Colleges—and even some high schools—are now compiling dictionaries of their own students’ slang; teaching courses in slang; and allowing students to write certain assignments in slang for such purposes. It’s with great satisfaction that I now see young people’s language being recognized as a form of English in its own right by some, at least, of the older generation who may not even use it themselves, and by some of their educational institutions.

Some of this lingo originated among specific segments of the population such as the beatniks and the valley girls; but it has now spread far beyond them and is heard everywhere, including literature, Internet talks and message boards, movies and TV shows (South Park, for example)—all of which were sources for some of the expressions mentioned herein, along with Ariel Schrag’s memoirs of her years at Berkeley High School in California.

Let’s look now at some of the words and uses that involve this “new grammar”. Having been around a long time (I’m 54), I can tell you that most of these slang terms didn’t exist until at least the 60’s or 70’s, and some may be as little as 10 or 15 years old. That’s why I love them so much!


LIKE is the word presenting the most complex picture in regard to slang grammar, because it’s the one with the most slang uses. It originated in the 1950’s with the “beatniks”, went into decline for a long while, then was given a new life by the “valley girls” and has since flourished. Probably its most common use today is as a “filler”, i.e. a word simply added to a sentence without really affecting its meaning. But in my discussions of slang, here and elsewhere, I use the term “filler” only as an overall grouping, or category, of slang expressions based on their effect or purpose. A slang word—even one without meaning—can and usually does function as some specific part of speech in relation to the rest of the sentence; and so I don’t count “filler” as a part of speech in itself.

Look what happens when we examine a few cases of “like” used as a filler:

  1. She like slapped me.
  2. I bought like a wallet.
  3. It’s like huge.
  4. I like must have been outside.
  5. It’s like around the corner.

Grammatically, “like” modifies a verb in (1); a noun in (2); an adjective in (3); the whole sentence in (4); and a prepositional phrase in (5). (Though in a way it doesn’t really modify anything, since it’s just a “filler”.) So “like” is an adverb in (1), an adjective in (2), a secondary modifier in (3), a sentence modifier in (4), and a “phrase modifier” in (5).

(NOTE: What I call a “secondary modifier” is often called a “degree modifier”; but I don’t like that term, because—as we’ll see herein—an adjective or adverb is sometimes modified by another word in a way that has nothing to do with degree. So I prefer to use a term that includes any word that modifies a modifier, no matter whether degree is involved.)

When a single word can function as a modifier in several different grammatical constructions, as here, I call it an “all-purpose modifier”—or an “APM” if you like. That’s one of the “new parts of speech” that I recognize. And note that “like” in its slang senses is pretty much an all-purpose modifier even when it has meaning (and therefore actually does modify):

  1. I was like stoked.
  2. It was like the bomb.
  3. Can you like lend me your car?
  4. They cost like ten dollars.

In (6), “like” is an intensifier, and functions as a secondary modifier equivalent to “very”; but it also intensifies in (7), yet it does so as an adjective. (Note that you can’t say “It was very the bomb”.) In (8) it may be inserted to soften the tone; in (9) it means “approximately”. But grammatically it modifies a verb in (8) and a noun in (9).

And—most interesting of all—even when “like” has its literal, non-slang meaning (i.e. “such as” or “similar to”) it’s still an all-purpose modifier in slang speech, while in standard English it isn’t. Literally it’s a preposition (as in the phrase ”...a car like mine…”). And its use as a conjunction, for “as” (“She left early, like I did”) or for “as if” (“They talked like it was my fault”) is now old enough to be accepted as “informal” English rather than slang. But consider what’s happening when we use it as an adjective, as in

She bought like a van.

It could mean she bought something that wasn’t exactly a van, but resembled a van. And similarly, with “like” as an adverb,

He like punched me.

can mean he almost punched me—i.e. did something similar. “Like” can’t function as an adjective or adverb in standard (even informal) English. So in these cases it’s being used with its normal meaning, but with “slang grammar.” That’s why the “all-purpose modifier” concept is itself a slang phenomenon. Below, I’ll discuss a few other words that are used that way.

And note that one sentence can (grammatically) be two different sentences, with different meanings, depending on the usage of one word such as “like.” Thus:

He ate like a pig.

If you said this about one of your friends, you’d be using “like” in the standard sense, as a preposition. But if you said it about Simba, the “like” might well be a filler, and therefore grammatically an adjective.

And—perhaps even more interesting—one sentence can also be two grammatically different sentences with the SAME meaning. There’s some overlapping between standard and slang usage that actually makes it impossible (but also unnecessary) to distinguish them in certain cases. When we hear “She bought like a van” we know that “like” is an adjective. But suppose we hear

This is like a van.

Even if we KNOW that the intended meaning is “This resembles a van,” the grammar remains uncertain; it could be standard grammar, with “like” as a preposition—but it could just as well be slang grammar, with “like” as an adjective the same as in “She bought like a van.” When distinctions get hazy, people stop distinguishing—and that’s how language changes.

Then there’s the introductory “like”, placed before a sentence (the way the beatniks first used it):

Like, how are you?
Like, sit down.
Like, it’s cold in here.

And the introductory “it’s like”:

It’s like, she should mind her own business.

The introductory “like” is usually a filler, not affecting the meaning; the introductory “it’s like” is usually an intensifier, giving emphasis to the sentence. These I classify as “intros”—another new “part of speech”. There are other intros, such as HELLO, I MEAN, and YOU KNOW. Similarly there are “tags”—placed after something—such as FOR SURE, TO THE MAX, and RIGHT?

The construction “I’m like…...” (meaning “I said…...”) will be discussed later.


But “like” isn’t the only word that’s reaching out and finding new horizons. Now let’s mention some of the others:

SO is a slang part of speech when used this way:

So I’m walking to the bus when…...

Of course, “so” can mean “therefore”, as in “It was late, so I went home.” In that case it isn’t slang. But often, as above, it’s just a filler with no intrinsic meaning. That use has been around for a long time but still isn’t recognized as standard. I call things of this kind “narration devices”—or NAR’s.

PRESENT FOR PAST:

I’m at the mall, and I see this cool shirt, and I buy it.

Someone saying this would probably mean “I WAS at the mall, and I SAW this cool shirt, and I BOUGHT it”—in which case present-tense verbs are being used with past-tense meaning. This is another narration device, of long standing but still considered slang.

STUFF is another kind of filler:

They sell hot dogs and stuff.
It was grody and stuff.
They dance and stuff.

Just about any kind of word or phrase can be followed by “and stuff”, meaning “and so on”—or, often, meaning nothing at all. And you can say something like “Let’s do stuff outside,” in effect meaning simply “Let’s go outside.”

WHATEVER is used in similar ways, with “or whatever” replacing “and stuff”. And we may say things like “I’ll eat whatever.”

So we create a “slot” that needs to filled by a noun, or by some other kind of word—and then we fill it with “stuff” or “whatever”, thereby making the sentence grammatically complete without using any particular idea to fill the slot. These words I call place-holders—or “pholes”.

WHATEVER! also serves as a one-word reply to anything—a completely non-specific and non-committal reply, meaning “There’s nothing to say, but it would be rude not to answer you, so I’m using this word as an all-purpose answer!” I think it’s time to recognize “replies” as a part of speech and thereby eliminate the often difficult task of separately classifying each one: Hello! No way! OK, fine! My bad! Chill! Bitchin’! Weak! Awesome! Awesome my butt! For sure! Way! Gross! Dude! Totally! Kick ass! You wish! Sweet! Ew! Yeah, right! Whatever!

HELLA as in “a hella good time” presumably arose as a shortening of “hell of a”. But now it’s also used predicatively, e.g.

Their house is hella big.

This isn’t a new part of speech; it’s still a secondary modifier. But I mention it as an example of how grammatical evolution occurs as a part of slang, and perhaps more in slang than elsewhere.

FREAK OUT is a grammatical construction meaning in effect “to be (or act like) a freak”—that is, to behave weirdly or unnaturally. And “It made me freak out” can be expressed by “It freaked me out.”

PIG OUT similarly means “to be a pig”. These phrases are verbs having a meaning that would normally be expressed by the verb “to be” plus a noun complement. I call them NCV’s—noun-complement verbs.

RULE is likewise a verb meaning “to be excellent or superior”:

That TV show rules!

The literal meaning of “rule” (as in monarchy) is not involved.

ROCK is also used that way (“That class rocks!”) with no implied reference to rock music. So these words are equivalent to the verb “to be” plus an adjective; hence ACV’s—adjective-complement verbs.

KICK is another ACV, usually used in the phrase ”......kicks ass!” which means the same thing as rocks or rules. Occasionally we hear variations on it such as ”......kicks butt.” (Also see “MAJOR” below.)

SUCK is in effect the opposite of “kick” when used in the same way, and hence an ACV as well. It has gone through many changes during its history:

  1. “He sucks dick!” was the original form of the expression. It was a commonly used insult 40 to 50 years ago, and even then it was figurative—i.e. its literal (sexual) meaning was not implied.
  2. Then it became simply “He sucks!” with the word “dick” understood.
  3. Then we began using it in reference to inanimate objects (“His car sucks.”)
  4. Then to mere concepts (“It sucks when they give so much homework.”)
  5. Then other words began to appear in it, such as “sucks ass” or “sucks balls”.
  6. We began putting in references to animals, like “This sucks donkey balls!”
  7. And we began putting the expression into other grammatical constructions, such as “That would suck so much ass.”

A personal comment: To my ears this kind of talk is nothing but the sound of freedom. Fifty years ago kids got punished if they even said “damn”. And now they can say stuff like “This sucks donkey balls!” (Though not in the classroom, I guess.) It really makes me feel good to know that today’s youth—at least sometimes—have the freedom to express themselves freely as long as they aren’t hurting anyone. Slang—including swearing—has been around as long as language itself. How long does it take for society to figure out that there’s nothing WRONG with it?

SO, when used to mean “very” (as in “He is so handsome!”) isn’t new at all. But nowadays it’s also used in expressions like

Dude, I am SO going there tonight!

where its meaning is more like “unquestionably” than “very.” This modern use appears to have evolved out of the “very” use, since it has similar intonation. But, ironically, its meaning is closer to that of an even older form from which it probably isn’t derived—the affirming “so,” as when one accused of not closing the door replies “I did SO close the door!” (Note that the intonation there is different.) The literal way to say that would be “I did indeed close the door”—but you hardly ever hear that today. Hence the word “so” when used that way is now standard English; and when it means “very” it’s merely informal English. But when used as in “Dude, I am SO going there tonight!” it’s slang, and serves enough grammatical functions to qualify as an all-purpose modifier.

LIKE: The most convoluted (and amusing) job done by this word is its use to introduce quotations:

So I’m like “Ew!”
She’s like “Dude, it totally kicks butt!”
I’m like “Um, yeah, right!”
She’s like “It’s way tubular!”
I’m like “It sucks major fuckin’ hippopotamus dick!”
She’s like “Whatever!”

What I love about this is that it pretty well defies analysis; you can’t make any grammatical sense out of it if you consider “like” to be any kind of modifier (as in its other slang uses) or a preposition (as in its literal sense). The only way I can figure it is if you take a sentence such as “He behaved as if he was sick.” To be can mean to behave (as in “Don’t BE that way”) and like can mean “as if”; so, on that theory, “He was like he was sick” could mean “He behaved as if he was sick.” And if it can mean that, it might just as well mean “He said he was sick.” So we end up with “He was like, I’m sick.” This use of “like” is another NAR (narration device).

TOTALLY in its slang sense is similar to the above-mentioned slang use of “so.” Some people don’t seem to have even realized that the word’s meaning has changed. Literally it means “completely” or “entirely”, e.g. “The fire totally destroyed the house.” But in today’s usage it can also mean “definitely” as in

He totally stole the shirt.

Or it can just mean “very” as in “totally tubular.” And it’s become an all-purpose modifier as well, so that now we use sentences like

She totally shouldn’t have been punished.

TOTALLY! is also a one-word reply, as mentioned above.

MAJOR normally means important, as in “a major change” or “a major accident”—that isn’t slang. But nowadays it can also mean “a large amount” of something, which is its slang sense. Especially, “major” is used in the “kick and suck” expressions discussed above, e.g.

That movie kicks major ass.

And you may also hear things like “I ate major calories at the party”. It’s still just an adjective, of course—not a new part of speech. But I discuss it here in connection with the next entry.

MAJORLY is a recently-coined adverb form of MAJOR, so that the two forms between them serve as an all-purpose modifier. It’s simply another intensifier, like “very”, but with the full range of modifying functions. Most commonly it modifies a verb, as in

I majorly screwed up that homework.

(You couldn’t say “I very screwed up that homework.”) Note, incidentally, the analogy with TOTAL and TOTALLY, showing that MAJORLY is in fact a perfectly logical word!

UM (as in “I didn’t, um, see her”) is very much a “part of (slang) speech”, but rather an unclassifiable one at first appearance. It originated, long ago, as a pause in speaking while thinking of what to say—so that it was then truly an “inserted word”, unrelated grammatically to the rest of the sentence; but today many speakers use it constantly without any pause for thought being involved, so it has to be recognized as a true slang word (albeit a meaningless one, i.e. a filler). As to its grammatical function, however, I can’t help noticing that it’s precisely equivalent to the word “like” in its two “filler” uses: first, the all-purpose modifier “like” when used with no meaning, as in “It’s like around the corner” and the other examples above; and second, the intro “like” as in “Like, how are you?” and so on. In just about any case where “like” is used in either of those ways, you could just as well put “um” in its place—and vice versa! So I must feel that logic demands the classification of “um” in the same two ways: as an APM and as an intro. The only difference between “um” and “like” is that the latter also has slang uses WITH a specific meaning, while the former has none.

WAY is the word I’ve left for the end of this list, because I love it so much. It has always been prefixed, as an intensifier, to many kinds of phrases: way too big, way out of line, way down the road, way beyond the fence, and so on. These expressions take various intensifiers. We don’t say “very beyond” and such; but we can say “far beyond”. However, “way” has always been used too in many cases, such as those above. And yet in other cases it isn’t so; the use of “way” in place of “very—as in “way cool”, for example—is a recent innovation.

As nearly as I can make it out, the pattern of standard usage is something like this:

  1. Adjectives and adverbs in normal form are intensified by “very”.
  2. Comparatives (more, less, better, worse, etc.) are intensified by “much” (much better, etc.) or sometimes by “far”, but never by “very”.
  3. “Too” is intensified in the same way as comparatives.
  4. Prepositional phrases are usually intensified by “far”, but occasionally by “much” or “very”.

However, “way” has long been used as an alternative—often considered informal, but not slang—in cases of types 3 and 4; whereas with most modifiers of types 1 and 2, “way” was never used until recently (and is consequently considered slang when it is so used).

There doesn’t appear to be much logic to it. “Way too big” is old and accepted; “way bigger” is new and therefore not accepted. Yet the corresponding standard expressions are “much too big” and “much bigger”. Why is it OK to use “way” for “much” in one case, but not in the other? Maybe the answer is that it just ISN’T logical—and if so, that’s all the more reason to stop labeling words arbitrarily as OK or not OK. If people want to say “way better”, just let them. Moreover, if there’s no single word that can be used in its place in all cases, that makes it not only an APM but a very useful one!

But this little word has also traveled another tangled path through the maze of slang:

NO WAY! was the beginning of the path. It began as a term of refusal—i.e. “I won’t do it.” Now it often means simply “it won’t happen” or “it’s impossible”. It may also express incredulity or just surprise.

WAY! (or sometimes “Yeah way” or “Yes way”, etc.) may be used as a reply to “No way” expressing disagreement with it. And, as a further extension of that, it can express agreement with an affirmative statement, e.g.

“That movie was cool!”
Reply: “Way!”

Note, however, that this reply could just as well be short for “Way cool!” (Just as we may use “Very!” as a one-word reply.) So the reply “Way!” expressing agreement could have come from way meaning “yeah way”, OR from way meaning “very”. The two paths have crossed! Tracing the paths that language follows can be fascinating, useful, enlightening and rewarding. What isn’t useful or rewarding is trying to make language stand still.


So we have intros, tags, replies, ACV’s, NCV’s, NAR’s, pholes, and—most important of all—APM’s. These new “parts of (slang) speech” aren’t yet great in numbers, but they’re already great in importance; they’re now forming an integral part of the core—the backbone—the syntactic structure of our great language. Let’s love them, respect them, and welcome them gladly to the English-speaking world. Even if we could keep them out, why should we want to?

In conclusion: The purpose of language is communication, and when it fails in that purpose—as it occasionally may—some remedy may be called for. But we should not allow ourselves, or our intelligence, or our abilities, to be judged by those who think that the rules of English (or any language) cannot change, and who consequently equate change with violation of the rules. A teacher of that kind, according to an anecdote that I once heard, was reciting to his class the silly old “explanation” of why double negatives “can’t be correct”, i.e. that two negatives make an affirmative.

“But,” he concluded,” you can’t put two affirmatives together to make a negative.”

And the whole class shouted: “Yeah, right!”


~