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January 24th, 2007

Like and such as / postal vs. traditional abbreviations for state names

by Barbara Wallraff

Hank Hughes, of Mesa, Ariz., writes: “When is it OK to use ‘like,’ and when is ‘such as’ preferable? For example, is the sentence ‘James Garner starred in TV shows like “Maverick”’ OK, or should it be ‘such as “Maverick”’? I mean in writing that’s published in a newspaper, not just conversational usage.”

Dear Hank: Most authorities on language say that “like” means the same thing as “such as” in a sentence like your example. It’s not colloquial or incorrect. True, it’s less formal in tone than “such as” -- but that actually makes it better usage in a context like newspapers. Newspaper stories are supposed to be conversational -- at least compared with, for instance, annual reports, legal agreements and writing by scholars for scholars.

All the same, there are two things about “like” to keep in mind. (I mean the kind of “like” you’re talking about -- not the “like” that drives grown-ups mad when younger people carelessly toss it into sentences.) First, because “shows like ‘Maverick’” often means “‘Maverick’ and similar shows,” you can’t count on it to get across “shows similar to but not including ‘Maverick.’” So don’t use it where you definitely want to exclude your example. For example, “I used to think the stars of shows like ‘Maverick’ were swaggering bullies” seems unkind to James Garner, doesn’t it? If I meant I liked Garner but not the stars of other Westerns, I should phrase it another way.

Second, try not to leave anyone guessing about what’s “like” what else. If you said “TV shows like ‘Maverick,’ ‘Bat Masterson’ and ‘The Lone Ranger,’” obviously you’d have in mind old-time Westerns. But you wrote “James Garner starred in TV shows like ‘Maverick.’” In fact, James Garner’s only other big hit on television was “The Rockford Files,” which didn’t have much in common with “Maverick” except Garner himself. So in this case, you might be better off not using either “like” or “such as”: “James Garner starred in ‘Maverick,’ among other TV shows.”

Jim Harnden, of West Bloomfield, Mich., writes: “The U.S. Postal Service has a set of 50 two-letter abbreviations for our states. They are simple, convenient and easy to learn and use. However, most newspapers and magazines continue to use older, longer abbreviations, such as ‘Mich.’ for Michigan and .’ for Minnesota. Why aren’t the USPS abbreviations used universally?”

Dear Jim: If any one person is responsible for keeping the older abbreviations active, it’s Norm Goldstein, the longtime editor of the Associated Press Stylebook and the voice of the AP on subjects like this. I asked him your question, and here’s his response: “We consider the two-letter postal abbreviations for the states to be computer convenience and prefer to use standard state abbreviations. By standard, we mean the abbreviations that are listed in virtually all dictionaries and are still taught in schools. Some of the postal abbreviations, incidentally, are still confusing, despite more use. Especially the M’s: Is ‘MI’ Mississippi or Michigan (or Minnesota); is ‘MA’ Maine or Massachusetts? We have, though, recognized the reality in sending material the old-fashioned way -- through the Post Office -- and accept the two-letter abbreviations when using full addresses and ZIP codes.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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