I want to take up a language peeve I hear a lot about: The uptick in (often younger) people prefacing their opinions with “I feel like”: “I feel like it’s a matter of duty,” “I feel like people are ignoring the consequences” and so on.
The rub for many is that the phrase sounds wishy-washy, as if there is an epidemic of hedging amid a new generation. Some have suggested that discussions in meetings might be less productive or that we risk undermining our own arguments by using the phrase, but is that what really happens? The esteemed Cornell University linguist Sally McConnell-Ginet — quoted in this 2016 Times Opinion essay by Molly Worthen — has ventured, “This is speculative, but ‘I feel like’ fits with this general relativism run rampant,” adding that “there are different perspectives, but that doesn’t mean there are not some facts on the ground and things anchoring us.” And I fully take her point that equivocation isn’t always called for. But this usage of “I feel like” can be seen through many lenses. One of them is even Amazonian.
Looking at Google’s Ngram Viewer, you can see that the phrase has had a significant upswing in the 21st century. The question is whether it is being used in its literal meaning or whether it is a frozen expression that happens to be moving in on an older one that means the same thing but enjoys wider acceptance: “I think.”
Under this analysis, “I feel like” is an example of how words and expressions for the same thing coexist and compete all the time. For example, the use of “based off” (what you said) instead of “based on” took off around the same time as “I feel like” — as I noticed among my students over the past two decades. Yet few would impute a particular significance to this change. Expressions can change like fashions.
In the aforementioned Times piece, the University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman said, “I feel like the emotions have long since been mostly bleached out of ‘feel that’”— suggesting he sees the phrase as a neutral preface, not an expression of timidity. (Whether he used it himself, in that instance, to be wry, I don’t know.)
A few years earlier, when interviewed for an article in Jezebel about the perception that “I feel like” is used more by women — possibly signaling that, relative to men, they feel the need to soften their opinions — Liberman said that could be the case or it could simply be that “women are generally about a generation ahead of men in most cases of language change.” He subsequently wrote that if women evinced a lack of confidence in their assertions, then we would expect to see them using other hedge markers such as “seems,” “sort of” and “maybe” with significantly greater frequency than men. But in casual speech, he said, that doesn’t bear out.
When language changes, it’s often women who start doing the new thing first. Women as early linguistic adopters is what happened with uptalk — intoning statements as questions, something increasingly more gender neutral — as well as something as quotidian as the gradual shift to using “has” instead of “hath.” This tells me that if women are using “I feel like” more, it isn’t because they’re shy but because the expression is just an example of a typical, vanilla change in language.
Even “I think,” if you think about it (ha ha), is less a conclusion than an expression of opinion, just as “I feel like” is. But these expressions of opinion needn’t be classified as uncertainty or undue accommodation. Rather, both expressions instantiate a distinction, made in languages worldwide, called evidentiality. We know languages situate things in time according to tense, but sometimes we’re less aware that languages mark how speakers know what it is they are stating.
In some languages, this evidential marking gets awesomely explicit. In a language of the Amazon called Tuyuca, to say “they are chopping trees” alone isn’t enough — you have to choose from a wide range of suffixes to indicate how you know. If you saw it, you say “they’re chopping trees” with the suffix -í. If you heard it, -gí; if you heard about it from others, -yigɨ; if you suppose it, -hĩyi.
In English, we don’t express evidentiality with a special set of suffixes used only for that purpose but instead use words that otherwise can mean other things. “Apparently, they sell them in the summer, too,” you say about something you’ve heard around. If you believe you hear the pizza delivery person arriving, you say “That must be the pizza.” When you couch something as an opinion, you say “I think it’s a matter of sincerity” or, these days, “I feel like it’s a matter of sincerity.”
On the old radio and TV show “Fibber McGee and Molly,” Fibber was regularly bedeviled by a little girl, Teeny, who would come by and engage him in rambling conversations. Her catchphrase was “I betcha,” an evidential expression signaling awareness that something might be untrue but that one is nonetheless confident it is true — enough to be willing to place a bet on it. In one 1939 episode Fibber says, “Teeny? Well … that’s a cute name,” and she answers, “Sure it is, I betcha” — even if someone out there thinks her name isn’t cute, she’s pretty sure it is.
The expression “I reckon” serves a similar purpose. Chaucer used the phrase “I gesse,” or “I guess,” in his work, with the same basic meaning as for us today. If “I reckon” is warm and quaint and Chaucer’s “I guess” is literary and noble, then we ought to wonder why “I feel like” is taken as a marker of rhetorical weakness.
When people preface their thoughts with “I feel like,” they’re indicating that the source of what they’re about to say is reasoned but not categorical. Tacitly, they’re leaving an opening for others to disagree, but this is less cowering than gracious. The heart of human linguistic communication is pointing out something all are familiar with and then indicating something novel or useful or unexpected about it. This is what language evolved for, not private rumination or exploratory dialogues, which came later and piggybacked on the basic function of enlightening others — something Thom Scott-Phillips gets to the heart of in “Speaking Our Minds” and Charles Taylor also explores in “The Language Animal.”
But languages go further than this. Because all of them are vehicles of nuance, all of them allow speakers to indicate how sure they are of what they are communicating in various ways. “That must be the pizza,” one surmises, because it was ordered a half-hour ago. “I feel like the pizza won’t get here in time,” you say, although you can’t know for sure and are open to someone else’s assessment.
Of course, there are gradations of confidence: “I think” indicates a touch more certainty than “I feel like,” while “I believe” indicates more certainty than “I think.” This indicates in us attention to degree and detail; an anthropologist might document these phrases as neatly allowing speakers to register three degrees of qualified certainty. So if Tuyuca speakers have a suffix to indicate that they suppose, perfectly confident people say “I reckon” and no one would accuse Middle English speakers of self-doubt for saying “I guess,” then I feel like we can say English speakers are doing just fine today.
Have feedback? Send me a note at McWhorterfirstname.lastname@example.org.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”