Liketa

“I liketa had a heart attack.”

(Feagin 1979)


Liketa, sometimes spelled as liked to or like to, is an expression that corresponds closely in meaning to almost or nearly. As described by Wolfram and Schilling-Estes (1998), liketa “signal[s] an impending event that did not, in fact, occur"—that is, an event that was likely to happen but did not actually happen, as in the following example sentences from Feagin (1979):

1) a. And it liketa scared him to death!

b. He liketa burn down the house one day cookin' french fries.

c. I was president of the council four years and that liketa worked the pants off of me!

Who says this?

Liketa appears most frequently in varieties of Appalachian English, White Southern English, and African American English. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) provides attestations of liketa over time, and describes its regional distribution, suggesting that it is most common in the American South and South-Midlands. Scholars have examined the use of liketa in the dialect of Anniston, Alabama (Feagin 1979), Smoky Mountain English (Montgomery and Hall 2004), and some varieties of British English (Johnson 2013).

DARE suggests that liketa may have come from the phrase was like to, perhaps by analogy with had liked to or would have liked to. It is possible that the syntactic properties of liketa reflect this historical development. Johnson (2013), in fact, proposes that liketa should be analyzed as a raising verb.

Syntactic Properties

Syntactic environments

Liketa can occur in positive and negative declarative sentences. However, it cannot occur in interrogatives, imperatives or exclamatives. For example, sentences (2a) and (2b) are both ungrammatical because they contain liketa within questions:

2) a. *Did he liketa die(d) when he heard that?

b. *Didn’t he liketa die(d) when he heard that?

Regardless of its environment, liketa is never inflected for tense, aspect, or person.

Interaction with VPs: Past and Perfect

Liketa always occurs before verb phrases whose main verbs denote events in the past. It often directly precedes a lexical verb in the past tense, as in example (3):

3) She liketa killed me! (Feagin 1979)

It can also precede the auxiliaries have and got, followed by the past participle of a verb, as in (4a) and (4b):

4) a. An’ we liketa have froze. (Feagin 1979)

b. I liketa got run over by ‘em! (Feagin 1979)

Note that the dialects in which liketa occurs often exhibit non-standard verbal morphology in which either the past tense form is used as the past participle, as in (4a), or vice versa.

Although liketa precedes have and got, it cannot precede the auxiliary be. Thus, (5) is ungrammatical:

5) *I liketa was run over.

The schematics below can be used to summarize the environments in which liketa occurs. (6a) outlines the occurrence of liketa with the auxiliaries have and got, while (6b) outlines its occurrence with a verb inflected for the past tense:

6) a. Liketa + Have/Got+ Past Participle (active or passive)

b. Liketa + V + ed

Negation

Liketa can co-occur with negation only when the negation is within the verb phrase that follows. For example, (7a) is acceptable but (7b) is not:

7) a. I liketa didn’t make it!

b. *I didn’t liketa make it!

Liketa is similar to almost in this respect because both must appear outside the scope of negation. This property is illustrated for almost with (8a), which contains almost outside the scope of negation and is thus grammatical, and (8b), which is ungrammatical because it contains almost within the scope of negation:

8) a. I almost didn’t make it!

b. *I didn’t almost make it!

Acceptable strategies for negation in this context include the negative words not and never, shown in (9a) and (9b), and negation with do-support, shown in (9c):

9) a. They liketa not got any food or anything to em. (Feagin 1979)

b. They liketa never git them needles up! (Feagin 1979)

c. I liketa didn’t make it!

Categorization and Conclusions

There has been some debate about how best to capture the unique syntactic properties influencing the usage of liketa. It demonstrates some morphological and syntactic properties characteristic of modals: It cannot be inflected for tense or person, and it appears directly before the verb phrase. However, there are several properties of modals that liketa does not exhibit: It cannot raise above the subject in question formation and, in fact, cannot occur in questions at all. Its presence in phrases such as (10a) suggests a distribution more consistent with a conterfactual adverb such as almost or nearly (as in 10b):

10) a. I liketa didn’t make it!

b. I almost didn’t make it.

(A counterfactual adverb is an adverb that applies to an event that was impending but did not in fact come to pass).

Still, calling liketa a counterfactual adverb would incorrectly predict it to be grammatical before and after auxiliaries. Counterfactual adverbs are acceptable in both of these contexts, as shown in (11a) and (11b):

11) a. He almost got hit by that car.

b. He was almost hit by that car. 

However, liketa is only acceptable before the auxiliary. Thus, (12a) is acceptable, but (12b) is not:

12) a. He liketa got hit by that car.

b. *He was liketa hit by that car. 

Semantic Properties

Liketa never occurs in sentences describing events in progress; rather, it always occurs in sentences describing events for which the time of completion has passed. For example, the following sentence describes a scenario in which there was the possibility of the speaker being run over, but that possibility is now gone and never came to pass:

13) You liketa run over me, didn’t you! (Feagin 1979)

Liketa shows a strong tendency to occur in sentences that describe a violent or dire situation, as in sentence (13) above and sentence (14) below:

14) My daddy liketa killed me one time with a ham string! (Nagle and Sanders 2003)

However, liketa is not restricted to sentences of a violent nature. One example of liketa in a non-violent context is shown in (15):

15) They liketa never git them needles up! (Feagin 1979)

Page contributed by Katie Ruffing on October 18, 2012

Page updated by Tom McCoy on August 16, 2015

References

(Note: Sentences not otherwise cited reflect native speakers’ grammaticality judgments collected by the author of this page).

Cassidy, Frederic G., and Joan Houston Hall, eds. 1991. "like." Dictionary of American Regional English. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University. Available here.

Feagin, Crawford. 1979. Variation and Change in Alabama English: A Sociolinguistic Study of the White Community. Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Johnson, Greg. 2013. Liketa is not Almost. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 19 (1), 79-85. (Article 10) Available here.

Montgomery, Michael B. and Joseph S. Hall. 2004. Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press.

Nagle, Stephen J., and Sara L. Sanders. 2003. English in the Southern United States. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. 1998. American English: Dialects and Variation. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Further reading

Kytö, Merja and Suzanne Romaine. 2005. "We had like to have been killed by thunder and lightning": The semantic and pragmatic history of a construction that like to disappeared. Journal of Historical Pragmatics 6 (1), 1-35.