This is the likes of which I didn't expect

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Sarah Halzack, "The shipping industry is poised for massive upheaval. Can FedEx weather the storm?", Washington Post 12/15/2016:

"Amazon is the likes of which we've never seen," said Dick Metzler, a former FedEx executive who now oversees marketing at uShip, an online freight marketplace.

To understand what's going on here, we have to start with a phenomenon that Haj Ross named "pied piping" — where a relative pronoun brings a preposition along with it to the front of a relative clause:

This is the outcome which we were afraid of.
This is the outcome of which we were afraid.

And sometimes, a word or phrase governing the preposition can come along too:

That is the house which we planted the tree in front of.
That's the house in front of which we planted the tree.

Leaving aside the residue of John Dryden's ego, we come to "the likes of which":

[link] The Trump penthouse is a stage that Croesus or Gatsby could have designed. "What amazes a lot of people is that I'm sitting in an apartment the likes of which nobody's ever seen," the Donald tells Time magazine, which elected him Person of the Year. "And yet I represent the workers of the world." [emphasis added]

The un-pied-piped version would be

… an apartment which nobody's ever seen the likes of

Such things do happen, as in this restaurant review:

… the relentless drive of two young creative guys determined to serve food which you've never seen the likes of …

And again, it's all a question of what to do with a relative pronoun that's the object of a preposition.

What's interesting about Mr. Metzler's quote — assuming he actually said it that way, which is always a risky bet — is that there's apparently no relative clause in sight:

"Amazon is the likes of which we've never seen"

Is he using "the likes of which we've never seen" as an idiom for sui generis — a new phenomenon, in a category by itself? Other examples suggest instead that it's a kind of "headless" or "fused" relative clause, equivalent to

"Amazon is (something) the likes of which we've never seen"

Here's a sample of suggestive cases:

[link] This behemoth is the likes of which I'd expect to see out of Origin instead of Acer.
[link] This is the likes of which Donald Trump might be proud.
[link] The outpouring of affection for late colleague Bruce Lerch is the likes of which has rarely been seen in these parts.
[link] Its potential is the likes of which humankind has never seen.
[link] I just knew his company called Apple had created something that was the likes of which I had never seen.
[link] The "Dice-K" movement was the likes of which baseball hasn't seen since Nomomania.
[link] It may take a year or two, but it will be the likes of which you have never seen before.
[link] [T]he racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws will be the likes of which they have never seen.

This construction is well outside the boundaries of my idiolect, but after collecting these examples, I'm starting to get used to it.



23 Comments

  1. Phil Woodford said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 9:17 am

    If we imagine a scenario in which Donald Trump achieved a large number of likes on Facebook for something or other.

    He might say: 'I'm like getting likes the likes of which I've never seen before. Like tremendous likes."

  2. Robert Coren said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 10:57 am

    The addition of the word something before "the likes" would make the sentence entirely unremarkable to me.

  3. DWalker07 said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 11:02 am

    The phrase "the likes of which" seems to be its own kind of phrase, separate from the "final preposition" nonsense.

    "An apartment the likes of which we have never seen" actually sounds better than "an apartment which we have never seen the likes of". Maybe that's just because I hear "the likes of which" as an idiom.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 11:28 am

    If the omission of "something" isn't just a mistake (of a kind I myself at times), it makes me think people are interpreting "the likes of which I've never seen" as an adjective following "something". If we have the choice between "It's something new" and "It's new", maybe for some people we have the choice between "It's something the likes of which I've never seen" and "It's the likes of which I've never seen."

    If I used this expression at all, I'd probably say "the like" with no s. That's the original form, but "the likes" has caught up recently in books, according to this ngram result. For reals.

    On the subject of pied-piping, I hope no one minds if I take this opportunity to quote one I saw yesterday:

    "The left-brain/right-brain metaphor puts us into the very box out of which we encourage creative people to think."

    For me, "think out of" (the box) is unsplittable, like "put up with".

  5. Chappers said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 11:52 am

    I'm interested that you haven't mentioned at the singular (?) version of this phrase, "the like of which", although I must confess that I'm not completely sure when each is used. Is it a dialectal thing?

  6. Phil Woodford said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

    In the UK, it would usually be 'like' rather than 'likes'. The latter has a folksy, country-bumpkinish feel to British ears.

  7. DWalker07 said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Right, I would never think of splitting "think out of the box" or "think outside the box".

    Outside of the box we are thinking, says Yoda.

  8. David L said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

    I recall from long ago a sketch with John Cleese and Michael Palin (not M. Python, I think), in which Cleese is a historian telling Palin about some ruined castle they are visiting. Cleese talks about its glorious history, culminating in some great feast in the 1400s. Palin asks, "and after that, did the castle fall into anything?" Cleese: "Oh, yes. Disuse."

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 1:55 pm

    Robert Coren: The Apple example is not improved by the addition of "something" before "the likes". That one wants fewer words, not more.

    Similarly, I think the un-pied-piped versions read better without the "which", e.g. "something I had never seen the likes of". I speculate that the presence of "which" in the un-pied version contributes to the temptation to engage in pied-piping.

  10. Theophylact said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 1:57 pm

    Extreme avoidance of prepositional ending.

  11. Guy said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

    @Theophylact

    I think the idiom usually appears with the preposition fronted, and it sounds more natural at least to me that way. But whether the preposition is fronted or stranded it doesn't change the novelty of this particular construction, where it is being used as a predicative complement.

  12. Adrian said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 3:00 pm

    The addition of the unnecessary s to "the like of which" (and also eg. "with regard to") seems to me to be both an American-English and an informal-English phenomenon. It manifests itself also in the addition of extraneous esses to surnames (e.g "George Michaels").

  13. Phil Woodford said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 3:18 pm

    I could imagine some stereotype of a farmer in the UK, saying 'the likes of which', but pronounced 'the loikes'.

    In that sense, it's reminding me of traditional cockney too. "I goes up to him and I says 'what's your game, pal?' and he says…"

    With regard to the 's' being added to names, isn't this more common with brand names? And there's a kind of confusion between plurals and possessives. They went shopping at Tesco. Or was it Tescos? Or maybe Tescoses?

  14. David N. Evans said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 7:02 pm

    I'd be interested to know whether those who perceive "the likes of which" as a phrasal idiom have difficulty with the following sentence: "Amazon is something of which we have never seen the likes."

  15. Rubrick said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 7:44 pm

    There may come a point (if indeed that point hasn't already come among people below a certain age) when "likes" in "the likes of which" stops being interpreted as an archaic synonym for "equals", and instead as "an instance of a 'like' on Facebook or similar". That would of course turn the meaning on its head: something for which you've never seen likes is something awful.

    Not implying that that's somehow what happened here, though.

  16. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 8:13 pm

    Rubrick: I don't think it turns it on its head. If something has more likes than I've ever seen, "I've never seen the likes of that!" seems a legitimate (if somewhat stilted) way of saying so.

  17. Brett said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 9:37 pm

    @David N. Evans: To me, that sounds like really bad phrasing, but it's not straight-up ungrammatical the way the original version in the post was.

  18. David N. Evans said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 10:31 pm

    Thanks, Brett. To me, it sounds more elegant.

  19. Terry Hunt said,

    December 17, 2016 @ 7:13 am

    @ Phil Woodford
    I'm not sure that's a Cockney feature per se, but rather a register that can equally be heard in several other regional idioms. I say this as the son of an East Londoner (not technically Cockney), though not one myself, who'se lived in various parts of the UK. However, my inevitably self-filtered perception may be in error.

  20. Bob Ladd said,

    December 17, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    @ David N. Evans: Yes.

  21. bks said,

    December 17, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

    The like of which we've never seen the like of which. –IT Crowd

  22. Paul Kay said,

    December 17, 2016 @ 5:47 pm

    Gregory Kusnick said, 'The Apple example is not improved by the addition of "something" before "the likes". That one wants fewer words, not more.'

    Well it's true that the example: "I just knew his company called Apple had created something that was the likes of which I had never seen," can be fixed by deleting the words "that was". But the implication (perhaps not intended) that this sentence constitutes a counterexample to Mark's grammatical analysis is not correct. That fact can be appreciated if we substitute a different noun phrase for "something" in the original, yielding an example like, "I just knew his company called Apple had created a crazy new widget that was something the likes of which I had never seen." Adding "something" before "the likes" does sound weird if you leave in the original "something", but only because of the two "something"s. And, to be sure, the example can be fixed in the way GK proposes. But Mark's and Robert Coren's implication that the example can be analyzed as a relative clause that has been (illegitimately, for many) deprived of its head stands for this and all the examples.

  23. Rod Johnson said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 9:49 am

    That Apple sentence is so bad I for a moment suspected it of being generated by a Spinbot-style article rewriter. It's hard to believe it came for a professional writer.

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