I feel like "I feel like"

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[This is a guest post by Pamela Kyle Crossley]

Just read the blog post on this. I feel like "I feel like" is one of those passive-aggressive tics that came in in the 1980/1990s, related to that thing where people turned statements into questions by raising their pitch at the end of a sentence (which I think was originally a California-ism). That fake question stuff was passive-aggressive, and students used it addictively, particularly in discussion. "I'm asking, right? Not stating? So nobody can criticize me, right? I'm just asking a question? If I'm wrong, don't be harsh on me, right? I'm just asking?"  Very destructive. Students need to be able to make statements.

"I feel like" means "What I am saying is necessarily valid, since it is my feeling, whether it is right or wrong. It should not be judged on whether it is factual or not. It is my feeling." There are times when I think people use this inoffensively — when they are genuinely saying that they are relying on an intuition or a guess rather than knowledge of fact (then I think it is the equivalent of "I want to say…"). But in most cases people are pushing opinions with this preface as a pre-validator. They could honestly say "On the basis of experience" "On the basis of what I've been told" "My best guess"etc. I would hear it as a perfectly unassuming way of saying "in my view" except that my impression is that its genesis coincided with a bunch of other passive-aggressive tics entering the informal language.


Selected readings


Afternote [VHM]

The worst offender in regard to the phenomenon described by Pamela that I ever met was a male student from Taiwan whose English otherwise was excellent. I finally had to take him aside and plead with him not to end every sentence, and virtually every phrase and clause, with a rising intonation because it was driving me nuts, and I could see that the other students in the class felt uncomfortable hearing him speak that way.  That was about 30 years ago.

Around the same time, I had gone up to Cambridge to give some lectures and was staying at a bed and breakfast midway between Harvard and MIT.  It just so happened that a speech therapist employed by Stanford was staying in the same B & B, and she had come to Cambridge to attend a conference of college and university speech therapists.  I told her about my record-breaking uptalk student and was astonished when she told me that that was one of the main problems she dealt with at Stanford (in California!) and one of the chief topics of discussion at her Cambridge conference.


[(myl) Update — I agree completely with what Nicole Holliday says in the comments:

This is just prescriptivist griping with (not subtle) overtones of age and gender bias. I expect better from LL. Where is the analysis of the phenomenon? Where’s the data showing its increase in use? Or how it’s perceived by listeners? Or a pragmatic analysis? References to any published research? There’s no linguistics to be found anywhere in this post, just picking on young people and non-L1 English speakers.

The post has no linguistic content other than to express the author's peeve, which is a canonical example of the kind of irrational prejudice again linguistic variation that LLOG (and modern linguistics as a whole) stands against. 

What's next, a screed attacking those kids today and their contractions?  Everyone has such reactions, but linguists have learned to analyze rather than to vent. ]



  1. John Rohsenow said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 8:28 pm

    "WHATever." ;-)

  2. Michael M said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 9:01 pm

    I'm not sure about these interpretations To me (Canadian male, 37), 'I feel like' just means 'I think', but with an implication that you're using your intuition rather than having thought it through deeply and logically, roughly synonymous with 'I would guess.' I don't associate it with emotions at all.

    Similarly, I have some uptalk at the end of most declarative sentences, and it's just a way of softening them, like the way you leave off the period at the end of a text message – in professional settings it happens less, because I'm sounding more authoritative, but that comes across as agressive socially. No one of my generation perceives me as asking question.

    Interestingly, this habit has carried over to my Polish, which doesn't have uptalk as a convention, so there people really do think I'm weirdly asking questions. But that doesn't happen in English.

  3. Jason said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 9:04 pm

    I guess everyone's a prescriptivist with enough provocation…

  4. Michael M said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 9:04 pm

    I wish I had proofread the above comment, apologies for the errors.

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 9:58 pm

    What Jason said. This is a really low-quality post.

  6. Viseguy said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 10:13 pm

    Interesting, isn't it, that the upsurge in "I feel like", in the Google ngram viewer graph in the linked post, coincides temporally with the phenomenon of Beatlemania in the UK, US and elsewhere, and then seems to be "getting better all the time". Although the operative verb in the Beatles' song is not "feel", but "admit".

  7. Nicole Holliday said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 10:22 pm

    This is just prescriptivist griping with (not subtle) overtones of age and gender bias. I expect better from LL. Where is the analysis of the phenomenon? Where’s the data showing its increase in use? Or how it’s perceived by listeners? Or a pragmatic analysis? References to any published research? There’s no linguistics to be found anywhere in this post, just picking on young people and non-L1 English speakers.

  8. David L said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 10:46 pm

    In a similar vein, the New York Times recently published an analysis (I use the word loosely) of how Mark Zuckerberg's manner of speaking signifies a passive-aggressive way to bully the listener. Or something. I can't say I understood what the point of the story was.

  9. JPL said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 11:06 pm

    In describing the phenomenon people need to be more precise than just saying "raising their pitch" and "rising intonation", because I think this one might be different from the normal intonation for yes-no questions or the kind of pattern discussed in the "I don't know" posts above.

  10. Joe said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 11:51 pm

    I read both "I feel like" and high rising terminal the opposite way, as qualifying and hedging to weaken the boldness of a statement rather than strengthen it. "I think X is true" is weaker than "X is true", stating only my personal reasoning rather than an objective universal truth, and to my ear "I feel like" is weaker still, asserting only an intuition or hunch rather than a rational deduction I'm prepared to defend. This reduces the potential social cost of disagreement and is less insistent and confrontational, for better or worse. Likewise HRT sounds like I'm just putting a proposition out there tentatively, asking you whether you're with me. There used to be anecdotes about elders teaching professional young women to stop doing HRT in order to sound more confident and assertive, and it won't surprise me if "I feel like" is on the list of weakling phrases to expunge from a tough future girlboss' vocabulary as well.

    Of course this discussion is a decade late and now that's just how modern people talk, so I don't think we can read any intentionality into any instance of it anymore. I hear it routinely from people of all genders, native speakers and otherwise, zoomers to at least Gen X-ers, in a variety of tones other than just cloying politeness or whatever it originally sounded like.

  11. Christopher Buckey said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 12:35 am

    I feel like "I feel like" is just a perfectly valid synonym for the perfectly valid disclaimer "in my opinion".

  12. Bob Ladd said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 12:37 am

    I agree with Jason and Rod Johnson.

  13. Nicole Holliday said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 12:55 am

    This is prescriptive nonsense and just barely veiled age and gender bias. I’d expect better from LL. Where is the linguistics here? Actual usage data? A perception study? A pragmatic analysis? There’s nothing here except complaints about language change and a pretty unkind rebuke of an L2 English speaker who it seems was actually doing language acquisition in a naturalistic way.

  14. Bob Ladd said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 1:21 am

    And to turn what I just said into a fully constructive comment, let me draw attention to three old posts by MYL that provide a model for interesting Language Log posts on "how kids these days talk":




  15. Lukas said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 2:05 am

    I feel like this is one of these odd posts that say so much about the writer, but so little about the world at large. It's very easy to fall into the trap of misplacedly angry prescriptivism. I know this, because I often catch myself doing it. But generally, I manage to pull myself back before I write blog posts in public :-)

    Also, I feel like it's generally a bad idea to impose your own subjective linguistic feelings on somebody learning a foreign language, particularly if you don't tell them that you're just imposing your own feelings on them, but act as if you were revealing some kind of objective fact about the language. This is one of these cases where, at lhe very least, you should have started your complaint to this student with "I feel like."

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 2:14 am

    "I feel like", other than in fixed expressions such as "I feel like shit" (after a bad night out or similar) is not really in my idiolect — the closest phrase that my idiolect encompasses is "I feel as if" (e.g., "I feel as if I should be more worried than I actually am", after a very close encounter with someone carrying Covid-19). Not really sure if this is the same usage or not.

    As to "passive-aggressive" for uptalk, I don't perceive uptalk as such — more as an indication of insecurity, in that the speaker appears to be continually seeking confirmation from those with whom she (or he) is talking. I detest it, but that's another thing entirely.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 2:37 am

    Should we draw the necessary inference that Chinese people saying 我觉得 ("I feel", but used almost exclusively to mean "I think") need to learn how to talk properly?

  18. mdhughes said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 2:48 am

    "Ookaaaaaaaay?", I reacted.

    "I feel like" and other hedging phrases are just modern American English's politeness register. You're not imposing your views on the other until they have a chance to respond. It's not making yourself immune from argument, it's just avoiding initial aggressive confrontation. Trying to get some other perspectives. That's especially important as we're trying to reduce institutional sexism & racism.

    It might well have started in California, as much of our culture & language does because of Hollywood, but I've grown up (Gen-X) in the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest and got nearly the same tone; slightly more willing to confront, but only when I'm sure I won't get shot for it.

    "Very destructive. Students need to be able to make statements." makes me sit back and go "Whoah". Are students generally right? Should they impose their views on others, especially other students, without qualification? Or are they the people most in need of qualification of their views?

    I took Pamela Kyle Crossley's tone as hostile, curmudgeonly, oooold, and suspected she was East Coast, from a very conservative region, and sure enough, she teaches at Dartmouth (New Hampshire). Out West that kind of verbal tone is not taken well. Behave like that and you'll be shown the door very politely but very quickly.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 5:00 am

    Pamela Kyle Crossley was educated at Swarthmore College (in the town of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, hardly a bastion of conservatism, as I well know since that is where I have lived for the last four decades) and Yale University (make of that what you will!). And Dartmouth College is not the backwoods, all-male school it was when I went there more than half a century ago.

    As for Language Log, I would hope that people do not think there is only one way permitted to think here. Having written hundreds of posts and thousands of comments over a very long period of time, that is something I feel very keenly about, and like very much being here.

  20. Pamela said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 7:38 am

    I was not clear about "uptalk" (yes, that's it), and perhaps about passive-aggressive. I was struck by comments like this:

    "As to "passive-aggressive" for uptalk, I don't perceive uptalk as such — more as an indication of insecurity, in that the speaker appears to be continually seeking confirmation from those with whom she (or he) is talking. I detest it, but that's another thing entirely."

    "Speakers appear to be continually seeking confirmation" (by indicating insecurity). that's passive-aggressive. like, a definition of passive-aggressive. i think some of the comments are at cross-purposes, so I apologize if I contributed to confusion.

  21. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 7:59 am

    Let me play the devil's advocate a little.

    @Nicole Holliday: Where is the linguistics here? Actual usage data? A perception study?

    This post IS the data. It very simply shows that, even among people writing for a blog like this, there are strong language attitudes. Yes, this is not news, but it still is a data point. If you were running a language attitude study, this kind of text could easily be part of your qualitative analysis. So, in a sense, this post IS a perception study of sorts.

    BTW, knowing that these are the facts of life, however horrid*, may have some applied consequences. For example, many of my L2 students of English intonation have naturalistic uptalk. From time to time, I tell them that yes, that is the way young people talk, but that it's useful to be aware that there are negative attitudes. Is it?

    (*) oooold That is not particularly pretty either.

  22. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 8:38 am

    And, back to normal descriptive mode, the big question to ask is why only some features trigger these kinds of attitudes.

  23. Pamela said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 9:46 am

    "This post IS the data." this seems to me the be the point. in a general way it looks to me like we are in the realm of speech acts –there are two ends. if people describe the way they interpret no only the specific words but the affect, the intonation –sort of the oncological field– or words, that seems to be part of any linguistic thing. this is a blog. it is subjectivity and opinion all over it, which presumably is the value. in a similar way, it seems a bit meta for somebody to write about what is written here rather than about the post topic –except, that commentary is also part of speech act consideration.

    i'm not personally outraged by uptalk or passive-aggressive tactics of false self-abnegation or ostentatious insecurity. the first people i ever heard doing uptalk were people my own age –this isn't a judgement of people of one era against those of another. but in my students, i have to notice it –it is my job to get them to notice the things, of which they would otherwise probably not be conscious, that can interfere with them being taken seriously in this world. uptalk doesn't help them. i'm paid to point that out.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 11:00 am

    Pamela: I thought the definition of "passive-aggressive" was expressing one's resentments by not doing what is expected or what would be helpful–avoiding work and such. What definition includes ostentatious insecurity in answering questions?

    Also, you used the word "oncological" above, but as oncology is the study of tumors, I don't think it's the word you want. I can't figure out what the intended word is, though. "Ontological" looks similar, but as it means "relating to the philosophical study of being or existence", or by the usual metonymy, "relating to existence", I don't see how that would fit either.

  25. Jerry Packard said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 12:24 pm

    I agree with Mark, Jason, Rod, Bob and Nicole regarding prescriptivism. Regarding analysis, some of my millennial children have virtually eliminated phrase-final declination in making statements, replacing it with the rising intonation pattern described in the many of the above responses.

    I always took it to be (ahem!) a softening of assertiveness, sort of inviting the interlocutor to offer a dissenting view, in the way Joe describes it. I never took it to be anything like a passive-aggressive tic or microaggression, but just a way to express tentativeness and invite the interlocutor to offer their dissenting view.

    For my own speech, in my old age – with counsel from my spouse and younger family members and others – I now make a habit of prefacing my statements with 'I think' or 'in my view', in order to let my listeners know that I am not convinced of the truth of my statement (as apparently many have presumed), but just offering my take.

  26. Nicole Holliday said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 1:08 pm

    Regarding "there being more than one way to think here", I see no such threat. But as a linguist (at Penn!), I am invested in doing description that is both fair and accurate. As language scientists, I don't think we need to be in business of punching down at young people and L2 English speakers. And we certainly don't need to be in the business of policing language change and giving ammunition to those who will use our work to discriminate.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 1:09 pm

    mdhughes: I was struck by your use of "imposing your views" and "impose their views". I don't see making flat, unhedged statements as imposing one's views (unless one is in a position of power, but the subject is how students speak in class). Otherwise we'd have all kinds of views imposed on us all the time.

    Also, you made—sorry, I live in the West (New Mexico)—I feel that you made a number of unhedged statements in your comment, many of them with the tone that you said would get you shown the door.

  28. Guy said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 10:10 pm

    Reading this post I was wondering if I’d failed to notice that it was April Fools Day or something. The idea that people were made uncomfortable by too much rising intonation is laughably absurd, only made less amusing by the thought of the poor student being berated by his professor for having intonation patterns they personally didn’t like. I don’t see how this would be substantially different from a professor insisting that all their students refrain from speaking with an accent that they find annoying.

  29. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 3:27 am

    @Guy: If you click the tag "Peeving" in the header of the post, you will see that there have been tens of posts on here on the topic. Negative language attitudes are a fact of life.

    There is a sizeable body of literature on language attitudes; I recommend Preston and Niedzielski's Folk linguistics as a fun and approachable starting point. Among other things, you will find maps like this in there.

    The backlash against this post is rooted in something that I think hasn't been openly mentioned in the comments. There is a proscription against "professional linguists" expressing such negative attitudes publicly. At least without a disclaimer along the lines of "here I am expressing my peeves as an 'average person', not a card-carrying linguist".

  30. Victor Mair said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 6:48 am

    I treasure the multiplicity of viewpoints expressed in the comments, but am surprised that no one has mentioned the Stanford speech therapist featured in the o.p. It was she who encouraged me to "help", as she put it, the male student from Taiwan. She was hired by Stanford to deal with just such issues.

  31. Doug said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 8:25 am

    I was very surprised by the anecdote about the Stanford speech therapist. I had assumed that speech therapists (and linguists) would view "uptalk" * as normal social variation in speech, entirely distinct from the speech pathologies they work to correct. Apparently I was wrong. I would be very interested if anyone could direct me to papers published by speech therapists on this and related subjects.

    I'm guessing the "conference of college and university speech therapists" that took place "about 30 years ago" was the ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) conference in Boston in 1988.

    I found a reference to "Uptalk" on the ASHA website, in an item mainly about "vocal fry", but there must be more out there somewhere.

    *Could someone please come up with a name for this phenomenon that doesn't sound so darn silly? Surely no one wants to be accused of using "uptalk" and that must hinder linguistic investigation of the subject.

  32. JPL said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 5:02 pm

    Here is an article by LLog contributor John McWhorter from the NYT (Aug. 27, 2021) that would be relevant to this discussion: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/27/opinion/uptalk-English-language-coarsening.html

  33. Thomas Rees said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 6:08 pm

    @Doug: Previously in these comments @Joe used the initialism HRT. For a moment I wondered what Hormone Replacement Therapy had to do with the subject until I found the phrase “high rising terminal” earlier in the comment. The lesson for me is to capitalise technical terms if I’m going to initialise them. In Mike White’s recent TV show “The White Lotus” there’s an amusing misunderstanding of BLM: Bureau of Land Management or Black Lives Matter.
    I understand there’s also AQI (Australian Question Intonation).

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 3:57 am

    I too was confused by the mention of HRT, Thomas, but having decided that hormone replacement therapy could not possibly be the expansion in this context, decided it must be "high rising tone". I was therefore close, but no cigar …

  35. GH said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 7:33 am

    @Jarek Weckwerth:

    There is a proscription against "professional linguists" expressing such negative attitudes publicly. At least without a disclaimer along the lines of "here I am expressing my peeves as an 'average person', not a card-carrying linguist".

    And is that not reasonable?

  36. Rose Eneri said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 10:34 am

    According to Dr. Liberman's earlier post, uptalk can be viewed as "an aggressive need to direct conversation." And Bloix commented on September 8, 2008 @ 4:48 pm that, "Uptalk demands assent. It does not admit the possibility that the listener might disagree or have a different point of view." I think the same could be said of "I feel like." It is the same as saying, "These are my valid feelings, so you have no right to disagree."

    I am careful to never nod my head to an uptalker, even if I agree with what they are saying. Or I insist on a clarification, such as, "Are you asking me or telling me?" or something like, "I don't know. Is it?" Of course, my questions usually elicit a confused look.

    [(myl) There are traditional varieties of English — in Scotland and northern England — where final rises are normal for declaratives, with no special implication. And for Americans who adopted the pattern, the same is probably true.

    Similarly, feelings have gotten bleached out of "feel like" for people who use it to mean "think" or "believe" — just as the word believe itself has long since gotten the etymological love bleached out of it, and similarly for think.]

  37. Derwin McGeary said,

    September 7, 2021 @ 10:22 am

    While I agree with everyone saying "this is just prejudice against how young people express themselves", I think that engaged listeners in a particular situation can sense a lack of commitment or candour. There are times when expressing vague doubt, hesitancy or unhappiness is more than enough (choosing a restaurant, evaluating a friend's new partner) and others where it really isn't (giving medical advice, operating a nuclear sub) and a whole zone in between.

    I don't know if that sort of phrasing counts as a social or a linguistic norm, because acknowledging one's own subjectivity and hedging are both socially appropriate up until they aren't: are people reanalysing "I feel like" to be as concrete as "I think" but politer, or are they actually trying to be less concrete in expressing their opinion?

    But this is just me peeving really. Has anyone studied perceived passive-aggression as a linguistic thing? Obviously you can't ask people if they were being passive-aggressive but it would be informative to see if different cohorts read the same interaction as cooperative or uncooperative.

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