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I own literary books like The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler and The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie.

Do I own those books or not? This is not clear. The problem is the word like.

Many writers use the word like when they mean such as, and this causes confusion. When we’re editing client’s documents, we help improve clarity, i.e., we help the writer communicate what he or she means. As a result, we fix problems with like and such as frequently. Briefly, here’s the difference between the two expressions:

Like means similar to
  • “I enjoy sweets like cookies and candy.” According to this, I might not enjoy cookies and cake, but I do enjoy sweets similar to them.
  • “She has pets like dogs and cats.” According to this, she doesn’t have dogs or cats, but she does have other pets similar to dogs and cats. I’m not sure what animals she has for pets, maybe pigs and sheep.

Such as means for example
  • “I enjoy sweets, such as cookies and candy.” In this sentence, I am telling you that I enjoy sweets, and cookies and candy are two examples of the sweets I enjoy.
  • “She has pets, such as dogs and cats.” She does have dogs and cats as pets, along with other animals.
[Notice that such as is preceded by a comma. This is equivalent to the abbreviation e.g.]

When we apply these definitions to my first sentence above, we understand that I might not own Tyler’s or Rushdie’s books, but I do own other books similar to them. However, I do own those two books, so my sentence does not communicate what I mean. Instead, I should have written this:

I own literary books, such as The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler and The Moor’s Last Stand by Salman Rushdie.

As you can see, these expressions communicate different meanings. Using the wrong word is an error. The writer doesn’t communicate what he or she intends the reader to understand. In fact, the writer might be communicating the opposite!

More examples
The most common mistake is substituting like for such as, such as in the following sentences found on the web.

  • Rainforests are populated by insects like butterflies and beetles. Apparently, butterflies and beetles do not live in the rainforest, but other insects that resemble them do.
  • They [the American Mink] can also capture terrestrial prey like birds, snakes, mice, voles, and rabbits. So what do they capture? I’m not sure what are similar to birds, snakes, etc. This same site does have a correct example of the word like: They can dive under water like an otter to capture fish, crayfish, and frogs. This is correct because it communicates that the mink dives in a manner similar to an otter.
  • We eat the meat of many animals like goat, chicken, pig, etc. What animals are similar to goats, chickens, and pigs? Why don’t we eat goats, chickens, and pigs? (The writer should have used such as. However, this has a second problem: etc. should not be used with such as. Such as indicates that the writer is providing a sample list, so writing etc., meaning and everything else, is not appropriate.
  • The teacher will demonstrate with words like “dichotomy” or “intonation.” (Mississippi Department of Education, Language Arts Teaching Strategies, Eighth Grade). According to this, teachers do not use the words dichotomy or intonation, but they should use words similar to these two.

Summary and advice
Use such as when you are providing a list of examples.
Use like when you are writing about other things similar to what you are describing.

Make sure to use the correct word or you may communicate something very different than what you intend.

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