I'm (like)

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Yesterday, I had a ride with a young man (age 23) from East Liverpool, Ohio to Irwin, Pennsylvania, a distance of about 70 miles, so we had the opportunity for a good talk.  He is a tow truck operator by trade, but was also acting as a taxi driver to earn some extra income.

We had a nice, free-flowing conversation covering all sorts of interesting topics:  his work as a tow truck driver, the ceramics industry in that Tri-State (Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia) corner of the world, his 12-year-old niece winning the first demolition derby of her life and getting a 6-foot-high trophy plus a prize of $1,200 at the Hookstown County Fair, and much else besides.

Fairly early in our conversation, I noticed an unusual feature of the young man's speech, the prevalence of the word "I'm" at the beginning of sentences.

At first, I didn't know what to make of this prefatory "I'm", but after awhile I was able to analyze its various functions.  He used it to mean "I think", "My opinion / impression is", "It seems that", "I'm would guess", and so forth.  For example, if I asked, "How far is it to the airport?", he might reply "I'm… about thirty miles".

A less frequent variant of "I'm" was "I'm a / uh…", with the "a / uh" barely uttered, but still there.

I don't know if this usage is typical of all East Liverpudlians, be they young or old, but it grew on me, and I found it to be quite charming.  I will be back in East Liverpool half a month from now, and I'll make a more extensive survey of the speech patterns regarding "I'm" at that time.

When I had a chance to analyze the overall usage of this young man's distinctive expression, I got the impression that it had developed as a mechanism for avoiding "I'm like", which used to so ubiquitous in the speech of young people.  It was clear that the young man was making an effort to be well-spoken, so maybe someone along the way had told him that it's not a good idea to pepper you speech with "I'm like".

Whether you consider "I'm like" a filler, pause word, discursive marker, or whatever, "I'm (uh)… there's some overlap between the young tow truck driver's 'I'm (uh)' and the Valley Girl (or whoever) '(I'm) like."


Selected readings


  1. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 9:14 am

    Coult it have been the filler "um", pronounced with a more open vowel, sort of like "ahm"? That could easily sound like a pronunciation of "I'm".

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 9:18 am

    I was struck by "Hookstown County Fair," just because I was unaware of a Hookstown County anywhere in that region (or anywhere else). Turns out Hookstown is in Beaver Co, Pa. I thought it interesting and unusual for the fair to be named for its specific location rather than the county but it turns out that the Beaver County Fair proper fell into desuetude many generations ago and the Hookstown Fair (originally run by the local Hookstown Grange chapter) filled its social/cultural niche without ever taking over the name. https://www.timesonline.com/f1f19ef2-6df3-11e6-a71e-9f05973e7399.html

    I have fond memories from my Seventies childhood of watching (never participating in) the Demolition Derby at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, N.Y. (the fairgrounds were within a mile or so of my grandparents' house), and am happy to hear that this young man's niece is participating in the perpetuation of that vernacular American sport and/or artform.

  3. Cervantes said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 10:11 am

    I believe I occasionally hear this and I have always interpreted it as a false start, i.e. starting to say "I'm thinking that it's . . . " or "I'm estimating" or "I'm gonna say" or some such and then stopping before completing the phrase. He may even assume the listener fills in the ellipsis. My guess is it's an idiosyncrasy.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 10:13 am

    To turn Ferdinand's guess on its head, could it be an eggcorn? Perhaps when people say "um", this young man hears it as "I'm".

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 10:17 am

    @Ferdinand Cesarano

    That's a good suggestion, but it was clearly and distinctly "I'm".

  6. cliff arroyo said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 11:04 am

    "East Liverpudlians"

    Is this what they call themselves or an extension from the demonym for residents of the English city?

    Do people in Manchester, Ohio refer to themselves as Mancunians?

    I'm fairly certain people in Birmingham, Alabama don't call themselves Brummies…(according to wikipedia they're Birminghamians)

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 11:43 am

    @cliff arroyo

    Another good comment. In fact, I was dangling for it.

    I will be back in East Liverpool in two weeks, and will definitely find out what the local denizens call themselves.

  8. mg said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 12:03 pm

    @cliff arroyo – don't know about those other places, but residents of Cambridge MA are definitely Cantabridgians.

  9. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 12:12 pm

    BE https://www.oed.com/oed2/00018712
    LIKE https://www.oed.com/oed2/00133224

  10. Anthony said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 12:53 pm

    Cantabrigian has no "d" (it's not from the English word Cambridge).

  11. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 1:03 pm

    "it's not from the English word Cambridge"

    Cambridge < From Middle English Cantebrig(g)e, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Cambridge#Etymology

  12. M Lin said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 1:12 pm

    I'm interested to know where that's coming from too. I am skeptical about it being closely related to "I'm like" because that is a construction meant specifically to relay a summarized quote, like, "He tells me he's stressed and I'm like, you don't have to worry so much about it." It serves a similar function to "I says." It seems like this guy wasn't using his "I'm"s in quite that way.

  13. cameron said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 1:22 pm

    I think residents of Birmingham AL should be called alabrummies

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 1:53 pm

    Cambridge, Mass. is self-consciously a university town like Cambridge in England, which makes it particularly unsurprising that they borrowed the posh Latinate demonym. I would not necessarily expect the same sociological dynamic to be at work in the various U.S. municipalities named Liverpool or some variation thereon.

    The original Liverpool also has some less posh non-Latinate alternative demonyms, like "Scouser," which some residents of the American Liverpools might have become aware of during the Beatlemania era.

  15. David L. Gold said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 2:01 pm

    "I’m also fond of East Liverpool’s demonym: East Liverpudlian" (https://www.dispatch.com/article/20070224/LIFESTYLE/302249886)

  16. David L. Gold said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 2:04 pm

    I should have quoted more:

    I’m also fond of East Liverpool’s demonym: East Liverpudlian.

    The town on the Ohio River in Columbiana County was named for Liverpool, England, whose residents are called Liverpudlians — hence the Ohio derivative.

    I learned this from Joan Witt, the East Liverpool historian. She also explained why a place well west of its namesake dubbed itself East Liverpool: When the town was naming itself, it had to add the directional term to differentiate it from Liverpool in Medina County.

    The town has had fun with its British demonym, even using it in a slogan: “We’re not big enough to be a pool; therefore we’re a puddle.”

  17. R said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 4:39 pm

    I came of age when "I'm like" was heavily stereotyped as a feature of careless teenage speech, and I have noticed in myself that I do linguistic gymnastics to avoid "like" in most company. (I often replace with just — e.g. "I'm just…") Because of this, I'm inclined to that explanation for the young man's expression, but I'm a born-and-bred AmE speaker so I'm engaging in a lot of personally biased speculation here.

  18. R said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 4:43 pm

    Sorry, the UK talk in the comments tripped me up. Different regional AmE, though.

  19. Jerry Packard said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 5:18 pm

    I'm with Cervantes: I think it may be an idiosyncrasy.

    But maybe it's no coincidence that 'I'm' is about as 'old' (given) as you can get on the 'old/new information' continuum. The tendency in an utterance is to put the old before the new.

  20. ohwilleke said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 7:03 pm

    I don't think it is a British English specific device. I've seen it more than once in the U.S.

  21. Doctor Science said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 9:46 pm

    Tangentially … Will Wilkinson just posted about the southernification of rural America, saying "Even the accents are more and more the same, trending toward a generalized Larry the Cable Guy twang."

    Is this shift something linguists have documented? My efforts to extract an answer from Google Scholar have not borne fruit.

  22. John Swindle said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 10:00 pm

    Certainly "I'm like" can be used to relay a summarized quote, as M Lin said explained. I've also heard it used to relay something that may be (but isn't necessarily) an exact quote; or even to record an unspoken reaction: "She goes, 'Listen, dude' and I'm like, 'Huh? Is she talking to me?'" None of that seems to be at play in your driver's unusual "I'm…."

  23. Phil H said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 10:26 pm

    Haha, see if you can get the people of East Liverpool to start calling themselves East Scousers!

  24. Celena said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 10:38 pm

    One thing I immediately thought was that it was representing the present tense – "right now at this time, I'm about 30 miles away". For some reason, I feel like it is open to change, like "I'm believe" means that "currently I believe… But that may change". I don't know why this is the first thing that my mind jumped to, or how I got that changeable feeling, so this is more of an anecdote probably produced by my insomnia than anything with evidence or explanation!

  25. Victor Mair said,

    August 30, 2021 @ 11:05 pm


    I like your insight. After talking to him for a long time, that's sort of like the feeling I got too.

  26. Miles B said,

    August 31, 2021 @ 7:36 am

    Re Cantabrigian: I'm not aware of Cambridge UK residents being described by that term – I'd only understand it to mean a member or graduate of the university (speaking as someone who lives locally to Cambridge and is a graduate of the university).

  27. Rodger C said,

    August 31, 2021 @ 9:25 am

    People from Manchester, KY are definitely Manchestrians.

  28. Scott P. said,

    August 31, 2021 @ 10:35 am

    I think residents of Birmingham AL should be called alabrummies

    Nah. Birminghamsters.

  29. Ed Rorie said,

    August 31, 2021 @ 10:46 am

    I don’t know whether this is relevant, but sometimes if you ask how far away something is, the answer can be “I’m gonna say it’s about 30 miles.” Is it possible that a pause to calculate the estimate of distance could cause the “gonna say” to drop out? No idea what regions this might be heard in.

  30. George said,

    September 1, 2021 @ 4:13 am

    Here's what I don't get: If the town in Ohio is named after the town in England, then why on earth is it called East Liverpool?

  31. Rodger C said,

    September 1, 2021 @ 8:44 am

    George, see David L. Gold above.

  32. David D Robertson said,

    September 1, 2021 @ 11:35 am

    "I'm" + utterance is synonymous with "I'm all" + utterance, in my experience.

    This has been common enough in youth speech since the early 1990s.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    September 1, 2021 @ 12:13 pm

    David — For me (Briton, 74 years of age), "I'm all" is normally associated with a relatively small set of set phrases — "I'm all ears", "I'm all right [, thank you]", "I'm all at sea", "I'm all agog", "I'm all for that", etc. But it doesn't seem to generalise. Can you offer an example of "I'm all" which matches Victor's conclusions regarding his interlocutor's use thereof ("I think", "My opinion / impression is", "It seems that", "I'm would guess", and so forth) ?

  34. John Swindle said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 5:13 am

    As an aging American I can imagine "I'm like" becoming "I'm all" or maybe even "I'm," but I don't see the connection to the trucker's speech.

    She says she loves me, and I'm like, "Really? She does?"

    She says she loves me, and I'm all "Really? She does?" (He's all surprised.)

    She says she loves me, and I'm, "Really? She does?"

  35. John Swindle said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 5:19 am

    Taxi driver. Tow truck operator. Not trucker. Sorry.

  36. Viseguy said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 7:32 pm

    I'm leaning towards idiosyncratic, too — something like, "I'm (gonna say) …"

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