What s the difference between like and such as

When to use like and when to use such as has been a sticking point for both novice and well-seasoned writers alike. There are, of course, some guidelines for proper usage — the first being that making the "right" choice isn't as big a deal as you might think.

The difference is whether or not what follows like or such as is meant to be included in what you're talking about. Like says that what follows is intended as a frame of reference to indicate the group of things you're talking about but is itself not included in the group. Such as means that what follows are examples of the things that are part of the group you're talking about.

Take a look at these examples:

  • Style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Stylebook, generally refrain from making a firm ruling on this usage.

In this first example, the such as indicates that The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Stylebook are examples of style guides.

  • Philosophy-based novels like Atlas Shrugged can change the way young readers see the world.

This second example, strictly speaking, uses like to indicate books that resemble Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (they're based on communicating a philosophy) but that aren't Atlas Shrugged. Note the "strictly speaking," though. In common, informal contexts — both spoken and written — the writer or speaker most likely intended to include Atlas Shrugged with the other philosophy-based books, so that the statement that follows — "can change the way young readers see the world" — applies to that novel as well.

  • Other hats that, like the fez, were brimless — such as the yarmulke, beret, and zucchetto — were often associated with specific religious or cultural groups.

The third example is more illustrative of the different usages because it uses both like and such as. The like indicates a group of hats that are similar to the fez (because they are brimless); the such as indicates that the next words are examples of hats that are similar to the fez. This sentence illustrates how fezzes are similar to these other hats while simultaneously setting it apart from that group. You might expect the next sentence to talk about a characteristic of the fez that the other hats don't share.

The difference between such as and like can be subtle and confusing if you think about it too much, which you shouldn't do. Writers and editors alike have chosen to break these "rules" time and again because such as sounds overly formal and stilted, clashing with the author's style and voice. For example, opening a sentence with "Basketball legends like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird . . ." has a smoother, more natural flow than "Basketball legends such as Michael Jordan and Larry Bird . . ."

Still, if you want some guidelines to keep you on a safe path, remember these:

  • If the statement is going to be set off by commas, use such as. "Some colors, such as orange and yellow, stimulate your appetite."
  • If the purpose of the statement is to make a comparison, use like. "Family-friendly comedians like Bill Cosby are harder to find these days."

When in doubt, go with the one that looks, sounds, and feels right. Remember: Writing is an art, not a science.