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Sexing butterflies

Grammar Girl spends some time today on the distinction some writers and editors maintain between like and such as. She generally supports the distinction, but I must, with regret, dissent.*

In fact, she undermines her own argument by presenting sentences exemplifying the distinction and then adding two in which it is impossible to determine which sense is intended. Or see how the meaning is altered.

Perhaps you have ever so much more time than I do in editing and can enjoy the leisure of maintaining gossamer distinctions. Or of sexing butterflies. For my part, I consider like and such as to be interchangeable, and I leave them as I find them.


*Quoting Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage in a previous post, I challenged readers to mark the distinction in a set of sentences. Predictably, they could not agree.


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:56 PM | | Comments (6)


I like (meaning "have a preference for") using both interchangeably to avoid situations when I might use one or the other twice in a paragraph.

Shouldn't the art of editing allow for things like/such asc ommon sense and the way people speak? I seriously doubt there is much sexing of butterflies going on in newsrooms nowadays. When it comes to this, nor should there be.

The discordance caused by the sound of a valley girl using "such as" instead of "like" is all that came to mind upon reading this post.

As with this, sometimes sexing butterflies is downright simple (as with tiger swallowtails, for instance), sometimes calls for a sharp eye (monarchs), sometimes can't be done without a DNA sequencer (mourning cloaks or red admirals).

When it matters, I really doubt people err. When it doesn't, I really doubt it's an error.

I think the distinction must remain. Can you imagine today's teens saying, "But, such as, he was saying, such as, he *such as'd* you!

Since I respect your opinion (and we often agree), I always take your criticism to heart.

Your position seems to be that not all style guides make a distinction between "like" and "such as," time is short when editing, and there are instances where it doesn't matter which one you use--so it makes sense to let this one slide.

My position is that some style guides and people make a distinction between "like" (similar to) and "such as" (inclusive), so it's worth using the most precise words.

With the sentences you say undermine my argument, I was actually trying to make the point that there are instances where it doesn't matter, but obviously, I failed to make the point clearly.

I view "like" and "such as" much the same way I view "further" and "farther": use the right one when there's a clear choice and use the one you like best when the sentence is ambiguous. We did start the article by saying "Either is acceptable to many grammarians and veteran writers," so I hope you won't accuse me of prescriptivism.

Finally, I found your "sexing butterflies" analogy amusing since I spent quite a few years in graduate school sexing fruit flies. Maybe I just have a higher tolerance for tedium than most people.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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