looks like Xing

One of my new year's resolutions is to read all the unread newspapers in the house before buying another. It is a Very Big Task. I started before Christmas and thought I'd have it done before New Year's Day, but I still have a substantial pile. We only buy the Saturday Guardian, but it has lots of sections and I can read at most two over the weekend--then the rest pile up.

So there I was reading the front section from 19 December, and I came across this (emphasis added):
After at tidal wave of hype, promotion and anticipation, Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks like justifying even the most optimistic box office predictions over its first weekend on general release.
I read that several times, then read it to Better Half several times. He kept insisting it was completely fine. I kept being incredulous--not so much that looks like justifying could be said in someone's English, but that I'd been here 16 years and never noticed it.

Then I went to link to the article in order to write this post, and found that the on-line version is different.
After a tidal wave of hype, promotion and anticipation, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has finally gone on general release. It debuted in the UK, most of Europe and parts of Asia and South America on Wednesday and Thursday, while Friday sees the first public screenings in the US. And all the indications are that even the most optimistic predictions of its box office performance will turn out to be justified.
The change to the text may have come about because the Guardian has a large international readership, particularly in the US, and so they employ their own production team who translate BrE to general English when needed. And American English just doesn't really do looks like VERBing. If the rest of the paragraph hadn't changed, I would have translated it as:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks like it will justify even the most optimistic box office predictions
In other words, if you say look like in British English, you can follow it with a verb phrase* headed by an -ing form in order to indicate a prediction. In American English, you can't, so we have to use a full sentence as a complement for looks like (this is also available in BrE). This isn't the first time that we've seen differences in linking verbs with like in AmE and BrE.

Of course, I couldn't take it for granted that this is widespread in BrE, just on the basis of the film editor of the Guardian and BH. So, I looked in the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English for 'looks like *ing' (where * stands for any string of letters). The list of results is telling (keeping in mind that COCA is 5.2 times larger than BNC):



Of the top five -ing words following looks like in the British corpus, three are verbs. The top four in the American corpus are pronouns that happen to end in -ing (these are further down the list in the BNC). Since COCA is 5.2 times bigger than BNC, the rate of looks like being in BrE:AmE is 364:1. And of the five looks like beings in COCA, two do not involve this particular type of structure (and are fine in my AmE), as in:
If somebody strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. That looks like being weak.
The looks like justifying structure makes a prediction. The looks like being weak example doesn't make a prediction, but instead describes something in a more timeless way. We can tell that they're different because they can't be paraphrased using the same grammatical structures.

looks like construction comparison paraphrase prediction paraphrase
it looks like justifying the prediction (BrE only) ≠ it looks like what justifying the prediction looks like it looks like it will justify the prediction
(general English)
that looks like being weak (general English?) that looks like what being weak looks like
(general English)
≠ that looks like it will be weak

I went through the 70 BNC examples of looks like being and 69 could be paraphrased as a prediction, for example:
  • She looks like being one to watch > She looks like she will be one to watch. (in a future race)
  • the Boogie Night on Dec 8 looks like being another worthwhile event > the Boogie Night on Dec 8 looks like it will be another worthwhile event
  • Yellow looks like being this year's colour > Yellow looks like it will be this year's colour
  • it looks like being a wet day tomorrow. > it looks like it will be a wet day tomorrow. 
(Though I didn't find it the first time I looked it up, I could have saved myself a lot of time this morning by just citing Algeo's British or American English, where he says that in the Cambridge International Corpus, BrE has 12.5 looks like being per ten million words, and AmE has 0.1. Note to indexer: I looked up like, but it's only under look like.)

This -ing complementation seems to only work with look like. Its synonym seem doesn't do it (*It seems [like] justifying the prediction). As for other sensory linking verbs, BH says he could accept It sounds like justifying the prediction (though it looks like is much better), but not It feels like justifying the prediction--but I can find no evidence of the prediction interpretation for these verbs in BNC. 

* If you remember grammar terminology from school, you might want to say "that's a gerund!" But gerund is a term from Latin grammar that just gets kind of confusing in English. They'll tell you that a gerund is an -ing form used as a noun, but we can tell the -ing word isn't a noun here because it has an object in the way that a verb has an object: just following justifying. If justifying were a noun here, it would act like justification (another noun) would have to act in the sentence: it could only have an object if linked by a preposition. So:
  • verb:   justifying the predictions 
  • noun:  the justifying of the predictions


  1. Yes, "The Guardian" seems to be moving to the right and aiming for the global and AmE-dominated market/readership - any connection? This is especially noticeable since the new editor took over: she is British but moved from New York, I believe. The style guide insists on several (to me) Americanisms e.g. banning 'restrictive which' and using 'swath' for 'swathe', accepting the US editors' etymological fallacy.

  2. It's funny, the BrE difference that caught my American eye in that passage was "on general release".

    In the U.S, a movie is "in wide release" or it has "gone into wide release".

  3. I can't help feeling that it's a simple case of lexical meaning

    looks like in this case doesn't mean 'apparently resembles', it means 'will probably'
    Similarly with an abstract noun object it often means 'there will probably be', e.g.

    It looks like rain

    feel like means 'fancy'
    That's what's wrong with It feels like justifying the prediction.
    I for one have no such problem with

    I feel like justifying the prediction. It will be a serious intellectual challenge.

    With impersonal subject it, I can use it in the 'apparently resemble' sense if the clause

    • is passive: It feels like a prediction being justified
    • has a notional subject : It feels like Lynne justifying the prediction

    If subject it is a simple anaphoric (pointing back) reference pronoun, the difficulty vanishes for me:

    That's an in intriguing line or argument. It feels like justifying the prediction

    According to the medium in question I could say

    That's an in intriguing line or argument. It sounds like justifying the prediction
    That's an in intriguing line or argument. It reads like justifying the prediction

    Stylistically, some of the sentences are bit iffy. But they all sound better with nothing less than

    It feels like nothing less than justifying the prediction
    It seems like nothing less than justifying the prediction
    I sounds like nothing less than justifying the prediction
    I reads like nothing less than justifying the prediction

    And with 'apparently resemble' rather than 'will probably' sense

    It looks like nothing less than justifying the prediction


    line or argument

    should be

    line of argument

  5. When I read the sentence aloud to my AmE-speaking wife, omitting the final "over its first weekend on general release", she registered it as anomalous but couldn't quite say why. It turned out to be because it seemed to need a final VP: she had heard "justifying ... predictions" as the subject of a complement clause (with no complementizer) that didn't exist. But for whatever reasons, the sentence doesn't upset me (also AmE-speaking) as much as it does you or her.

  6. OED LOOK v. P2(b):

    1923 Humorist 1 Sept. 141/2 (caption) Looks like being a 'ot day. Blinking good job I put me straw 'at on!
    1973 A. Broinowski Take One Ambassador ii. 21, I look like being in and out of the office a lot in the next few days.
    2012 Independent 27 June 21/1 If the eurozone really looks like breaking up,..then the poor old German taxpayers will be made to stump up.

  7. My guess for the different paper/online phrasing is that the change happened in t'other direction: the longer online paragraph was written first, then it was cut down by a subeditor to fit space restrictions in the printed paper that don't apply online, and that's where the “looks like justifying” came in.

  8. As a native AmE speaker, it didn't scan. Putting my editor's hat on, my feeling was that it would need either a subject and a be verb ("looks like it is justifying") or something synonymous to "looks like" that either contains a be verb ("appears to be justifying") or connotes that the -ing word is shorthand for the act/state of Xing ("gives the appearance of justifying").

    In a way, it reminds me of a habit that AmE television news has picked up in the last 10-15 years or so of dropping forms of "to be" (e.g., "The storm dumping up to three feet of snow across the Midwest.") where I hear it and my first reaction is that I'm certain that something's missing but I'm not entirely sure what.

  9. As an older than average BrEng speaker 'looks like justifying even the most optimistic box office predictions' sounds completely normal, so much so that it would not have triggered any feeling that somewhere else it might have a question mark hanging over it. So I'm with Better Half on that one.

    On the other hand, using 'debut' as a verb as in 'it debuted' still really jars. Incidentally, how is it pronounced? Does the stress stay on the first syllable or does it follow the calf/calve rule and as a verb shift onto the second. And in the past tense, is it pronounced 'debued' or does the silent 't' reappear and get sounded, to make three syllables?

    What's Better Half's view?

  10. The Oxford Dictionaries site seems somewhat confused.

    If you search for look like and choose British and World English, you get

    (look like) informal Show a likelihood of:
    [WITH PRESENT PARTICIPLE]: Leeds didn’t look like scoring from any of their corners
    [WITH CLAUSE]: it doesn’t look like you’ll be moving to Liverpool

    If you choose US English, you get

    (look like) informal Show a likelihood of:
    it doesn’t look like you’ll be moving to Brooklyn

    Do far so predictable. However if you click for MORE EXAMPLES on the US English page, you get

    Although they had the best of position, it only ever looked like one team would score.
    He has that knack of playing well every game and always looks like scoring a goal if not two.
    With the game being played in the middle of the field neither team were looking like scoring.

    i.e. the same three that you get of the British and World page.

  11. With difficulty I've reached the MORE EXAMPLE SENTENCES. There too, the -ing sentences haven't been filtered from the US English version. What I find interesting is that the bulk of the examples, even those not using -ing clauses, refer forward to the future (or future in the past). In fact, only the last two examples express likely conclusions about past event/states.

    Although they had the best of position, it only ever looked like one team would score.
    He has that knack of playing well every game and always looks like scoring a goal if not two.
    With the game being played in the middle of the field neither team were looking like scoring.
    We look like we can score at any time now and we are looking dangerous from both set pieces and open play.
    In the second half it looked like we were going to score all most every time we got the ball.
    It looks like there might be a battle.
    The high winds arrived late in the evening and it looks like being a stormy night.
    It looks like motorcycle bandits might attack if you are on a moped on the island.
    As with most great money saving ideas, it looks like it could end up costing more in the long run.
    The club was opened by the Conservatives and it looks like Labour are going to close it.
    Britain was the last to join the Airbus party, and now it looks like it will be the first to leave.
    It looks like the turnout for today's General Election is going to be up on the last one.
    I had a really busy week this week, and it looks like things might only get more hectic.
    Finally, she runs out of words and it looks like it is now my turn to practice my vocabulary.
    It looks like they may have to start from scratch and it could set the opening back more than a year.
    I like peace and quiet, but it looks like I will have to live in a big city to find them.
    On the basis that they have to be right one day, it looks like they're right this time.
    I think of myself as one of those guys that every time they putt, it looks like it might go in.
    It looks like Sir Seton Wills has come to our aid yet again and for that we must be grateful.
    It looks like the spike is finally over and a kind of normality seems to have returned.

  12. More evidence that look like -ing is common in British English.

    Publications from the COBUILD team are based on analyses from a huge bank of data — with rarer uses filtered out. Their Grammar Patters 1: Verbs identifies a small group of verbs that take the pattern

    V like n
    The verb is followed by a prepositional phrase which consists of like and a noun group. [noun phrase in old money]
    Structure I: Verb with prepositional Complement

    The full list of common verbs in this group is

    be, feel, look, seem, smell, sound, taste

    They note:

    In the case of be and look, the preposition like is sometimes followed by an '-ing' clause.
    With look, the '-ing' clause indicates what someone or something seems likely to do or experience:

    It was like being in a dream.
    He looks like being made president for another year.

  13. As a English person, I find the phrase in itself very strange...I don't ever think I've found myslef using it, it just doesn't sound right to me!

  14. Whereas I agree with Dru and with Lynne's Better Half that it is perfectly unexceptionable. But "debut" as a verb? Ouch!

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  16. Of Course! It hadn't occurred to me...

    It's a straight substitution of look like for is in the Present Progressive used as Future.

    He's leaving tomorrow — ARRANGEMENT
    He looks live leaving tomorrow — INDICATION

    Also for is used for confident prediction

    It's rain tomorrow — ASSERTION OF CERTAINTY
    It looks like rain tomorrow — INDICATION

  17. @David Crosbie,
    "He's leaving tomorrow" sounds fine to my AmE ears, but not "He looks like leaving tomorrow". In fact, the only understanding of "He looks like..." is "He resembles", so the whole thing is completely jarring. I'd say "It looks like he's leaving tomorrow".

    On the other hand "It's rain" doesn't sound right in any context. I would say "It's raining", but that only works to mean present tense. "It looks like rain" on the other hand sounds completely fine and *only* works with the future (though it sounds a lot more natural with "tomorrow" before "it looks like rain". "Rain tomorrow" without "it's" works a lot better, but it seems like it would trigger an "incomplete sentence" feeling in writing unless it was a weather report.

    So I think your two examples don't quite work the same way at least in AmE.

  18. He's leaving tomorrow is just an ordinary present continuous sentence, isn't it?

  19. Yes, Katkins, my point entirely.

    The present continuous/progressive is one way of expressing future time meaning. (The others are present simple, going to, 'll, and the modals will, shall. can, may etc.)

    If you deconstruct the form, it's a linking verb is/are/am followed by an -ing form.

    So, replacing the fact-asserting BE with the signal-reading LOOK LIKE gives you, for example, He looks like leaving tomorrow.

    It pleases me that this substitution works in sentences where is is not part of a present progressive, for example It looks like rain tomorrow.

    I offer this as explaining the mechanism which allowed the British English expression to arise and became (in my experience) extremely common. The same mechanism could have worked in American English, but didn't. AmE speakers just didn't care for it.

  20. But it's clearly not that simple because "It looks like rain tomorrow" is fine in AmE (though "tomorrow it looks like rain" sounds better). It's the -ing form that's the problem. "It looks like raining tomorrow" doesn't work in AmE.

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  22. The -ing form in itself is no problem. It's used for FUTURE reference in all manner of contexts. As well as Present progressive there's

    look forward to
    • other prepositions such as on the point of, with a view to etc
    • adjectives such as prospective, scheduled, intended etc
    • verbs such as envisage, imagine, force etc even when meaning 'I presently envisage 'etc

    The problem is merely one of combining the potential FUTURE meaning of look like with the potential FUTURE meaning of -ing. We BrE speakers are happy to make that combination, you're not.

  23. Hmm, nobody has yet mentioned the AmE form "he's looking to leave tomorrow", which closely related to the form under discussion.

    he's looking to leave tomorrow
    he's looking as if he might leave tomorrow
    he's looking like he might leave tomorrow
    he's looking like leaving tomorrow

    The last one still sounds a little odd, but I feel as if I've heard it used in movies involving 19th century AmE.

  24. PaulDavisTheFirst

    he's looking like leaving tomorrow

    sounds more than a little odd to me and, I suspect, to most BrE speakers. What I'd say is

    he looks like leaving tomorrow

    The PROGRESSIVE is marked only once.

  25. My instinctive response to the title was 'Who's Xing?'

  26. A side point, but I do so identify with the Guardians piling up. Have even left one city for the next with suitcase stuffed with articles and book reviews that I desperately want to read but haven't got to. Am resisting the suspicion that it's a form of hoarding.

  27. The phrase just seems too colloquial to be used in written text - but all attempts to use 'appears' or 'seems' are so much more clunky. And of course one is using a very odd voice for the verb - it looks? Surely one looks at something, or it looks at you.

    In turn, I was brought up short by a photo caption in The Times last week, concerning a fox that 'looked destined to be a lion's prey' but which turned and chased the other beast.

    Traveller - if you rip out book reviews from Saturday newspaper magazines, it's quite instructive to come across them months/years later and [to] try to remember which book you were interested in - some of course will now be in paperback, so you have actually saved money!

  28. biochemist

    Surely one looks at something, or it looks at you.

    That's look as a transitive verb.

    [On second thoughts, no. The transitive verb is look at. Bare look means something like 'have your eyes open and pay attention'.]

    But look is also commonly a linking verb, similar to seem and appear,.

    It looks OK
    It seems OK
    It appears OK

    Those three are used for the visual sense. For other senses, we use verbs which, like look can be used both as transitive verbs and linking verbs:

    sound (often an intransitive verb), taste, smell, feel

    Sound the bell. It sounds OK. (The bell sounds.)
    Taste the food. It tastes OK
    Smell the scent. It smells OK
    Feel the texture. It feels OK

  29. All David Crosbie's examples and "a fox that 'looked destined to be a lion's prey' ", all sound OK to me. So would it have been if the fox had 'looked determined not to be a lion's prey'. Are there parts of the Anglophone world where they don't?

  30. Looked destined to be is a bit highfalutin for my taste. I''m more likely to say looked set to be.

  31. Oooh no, 'looked set to be [eaten]' is a horrid usage that has entered BrE comparatively recently, mostly on TV news programmes - recently enough (say 20 years) for my mother to comment on it every time she hears it. I can see that it is a similar construction to the other one that I commented on but it is really nonsense, isn't it? At least 'destined' tells us what it 'looks like', but 'set to be'? I think it is really colloquial and would not pass the copy editors of good newspapers.

  32. The OED gives 126 senses of set, many of them subdivided. Sense 125a is

    To mark down as prey, fix on as a victim, make a set at; to watch for the purpose of apprehending or robbing. slang.

    Sense 123a is

    Of a hunting dog: To mark the position of (game) by stopping dead and pointing the muzzle towards it.

    This is what the dogs called setters were bred for.

    These and similar uses are ACTIVE, but it's a short step away from a PASSIVE use — that a fox appears metaphorically to be marked as prey for a lion.

  33. I think the "it" in "it looks", "it sounds", etc is conceptually similar to "it's raining" and the like in that the "it" doing the looking or raining or whatever is not referring to anything, but is instead a placeholder subject because English requires one. It can sometimes be omitted in casual speech ("looks ok to me").

  34. "Sound the bell. It sounds OK. (The bell sounds.)
    Taste the food. It tastes OK
    Smell the scent. It smells OK
    Feel the texture. It feels OK"

    The first example seems very odd to me, (I'm from the UK). Paradoxically, using "sounds" to actually refer to a sound doesn't seem right. For me, "It sounds OK" can only be used to mean "it seems OK". You'd have to say "the sound of the bell is OK" or "the bell is working OK". On the other hand, I probably wouldn't say "sound the bell", I'd say "ring the bell" or "try the bell".

  35. AndyJS

    I suspect we were thinking of different bells. Mine was large and had a clapper. OK, I'm more likely to use ring for an announcement/celebration and toll to mark the end of a day or a life. But I'd be more likely to use sound for a signal.

    Perhaps you'd be happier with gong / trumpet / siren / klaxon / buzzer.

    Here's a definition from Oxford Dictionaries Online followed by the long version of their examples:

    1 Emit or cause to emit sound:
    [NO OBJECT]: a loud buzzer sounded
    [WITH OBJECT]: she sounded the horn

    In my mind I am praying, praying for the next buzzer to sound so I can escape the woman's bitter stare.
    The dhol is a north Indian drum made from goatskin, and anybody who has stood next to one will testify to how loud it sounds when played.
    Just as Jon reached for the handle, the buzzer behind them sounded.
    Ravenna had not long to ponder because footsteps, faint at first but steadily growing louder sounded from the corridor.
    Suddenly there was a loud snap, which sounded through the basement, and Lizzie had stopped screaming.
    At 8: 30, as I peacefully dreamed of building and living in a tree house, the intercom sounded.
    Pulling the car to a stop just outside a well-lit house with music sounding from inside, Jesse grinned.
    Late that evening, the doorbell's chime sounded throughout the still house.
    [my emphasis]
    They knew that somewhere in the house alarms sounded so they kept moving.
    A shrill ring sounded in her house, and caused her to stop dead in her tracks.
    Footsteps sounded in the house, and the sound of the door being closed shot fear through my body.
    If something - or someone - in the water interrupts the beam, an alarm sounds in the house.
    They heard an alarm sounding off in the distance and knew they did not have much time.
    A sweet-sounding horn sounded outside of the Velnaut residence.
    From the edge of the field, the horns sounded a harsh blast.
    ‘Here we go,’ he whispered as a buzz was sounded and the ride began to spin and turn.
    The warning bell had sounded a minute ago.
    [my emphasis]
    It was unguarded but had a large sign warning that alarms would sound when it opened.
    An alarm sounded, warning screens blinked and to Petrov's horror a computer map showed the hostile launch of a US nuclear warhead.
    All I could do was watch it go, sirens still sounding in the background.

    Some further definitions:

    2 [NO OBJECT] Convey a specified impression when heard:
    [WITH COMPLEMENT]: he sounded worried

    2.1 (Of something or someone that has been described to one) convey a specified impression:
    it sounds as though you really do believe that
    [WITH COMPLEMENT]: the house sounds lovely

    I still say that sound can be a linking verb, an intransitive verb and a transitive verb. And it seems to be the only three-value verb that applies to the sense of hearing. On further thought, there is are differences between sound and the other sense verbs:
    • The transitive uses of smell, taste, feel refer to experience< whereas transitive sound is causal.
    • Transitive sound is not like look.The true equivalents are look at and listen to But we never say *The music listens OK.

  36. Here's an example from the OED of sound as a transitive verb used with bell — in this case a passive sentence.

    A bell is sounded in foggy weather.

    It's a nineteenth-century quote, but to my ears it could have been said or written ysterday.

  37. While I would certainly understand the meaning of "sound the bell", I think I would only ever say "ring the bell" (and cognates, of course) for situations of causing a bell to make noise.

    "Sound the death knell" would arguably be an exception, but that's a fixed idiom (or more likely a cliche) for me and not directly productive. "Toll the bell" is likewise uncommon enough to be a fixed idiom. (Both are more restrictive in meaning than "ring", of course.)

    I would use "sound" for alarms, and horns used for commands and alarms. I might use "sound the gong" as well, though I don't find the opportunity for that often enough to be sure.

  38. Doug, ring may be the commonest verb, but there are restrictions. I couldn't say ring the bell/the been rang at a funeral, for example. It's always toll. The same goes for a curfew.

    If it's specifically an alarm bell or a warning bell I'd be most unlikely to say ring and very likely to say sound.

  39. To my British ears, "It looks like it is going to rain" sounds slangy and colloquial. I would only write "It looks as if it is going to rain."

  40. As someone from the US who really likes BrE, I ought to study this & try use it in my life. I think 'looks like' here at least in Philly is usually used for future predictions that have at least a reasonable chance of happening.

  41. BrE. What about the early versions of (I think) Word automatic help. “It looks like you are writing a letter”. How many British peeves screamed “looks as if”.

    I have no problem with “sound the bell”. But what about “ring the bell, close the book, quench the candle”.


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)