Arrant Pedantry

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Yes, Irregardless Is a Word

My last post, “12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes about Grammar Mistakes Makes”, drew a lot of comments, some supportive and some critical. But no point drew as much ire as my claim that irregardless is a word. Some stated flatly, “Irregardless is not a word.” One ignorantly demanded, “Show me a dictionary that actually contains that word.” (I could show him several.) Still others argued that it was a double negative, that it was logically and morphologically ill-formed and thus had no meaning. One commenter said that “with the negating preface [prefix] ‘ir-’ and the negating suffix ‘-less’, it is a double negative” and that “it is not a synonym with ‘regardless’.” Another was even cleverer, saying, “The prefix ir-, meaning not, changes the meaning of the word regardless, so not only is it not a standard word, but it’s also misused in nearly all cases.” But these arguments still miss the point: irregardless is indeed a word, and it means the same thing as regardless.

In my last post I argued that there’s a clear difference between a word like irregardless and a nonword like flirgle. By any objective criterion, irregardless is a word. It has an established form and meaning, it’s used in speech and occasionally in writing, and it’s even found in reputable dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and The Oxford English Dictionary (though it is, quite appropriately, labeled nonstandard). We can identify its part of speech (it’s an adverb) and describe how it’s used. By contrast, though, consider flirgle. You don’t know what its part of speech is or how to use it, and if I were to use it in a sentence, you wouldn’t know what it meant. This is because it’s just something I made up by stringing some sounds together. But when someone uses irregardless, you know exactly what it means, even if you want to pretend otherwise.

This is because words get their wordhood not from etymology or logic or some cultural institution granting them official status, but by convention. It doesn’t matter that nice originally meant “ignorant” or that contact was originally only a noun or that television is formed from a blend of Greek and Latin roots; what matters is how people use these words now. This makes some people uncomfortable because it sounds like anarchy, but it’s more like the ultimate democracy or free market. We all want to understand one another and be understood, so it’s in our mutual interest to communicate in ways that are understandable. Language is a self-regulating system guided by the invisible hand of its users’ desire to communicate—not that this stops people from feeling the need for overt regulation.

One commenter, the same who said, “Irregardless is not a word,” noted rather aptly, “There is absolutely no value to ‘irregardless’ except to recognize people who didn’t study.” Exactly. There is nothing wrong with its ability to communicate; it’s only the word’s metacommunication—that is, what it communicates about its user—that is problematic. To put it a different way, the problem with irregardless is entirely social: if you use it, you’ll be thought of as uneducated, even though everyone can understand you just fine.

On Google Plus, my friend Rivka said, “Accepting it as a word is the first part of the slippery slope.” This seems like a valid fear, but I believe it is misplaced. First of all, we need to be clear about what it means to accept irregardless as a word. I accept that it’s a word, but this does not mean that I find the word acceptable. I can accept that people do all kinds of things that I don’t like. But the real problem isn’t what we mean by accept; it’s what we mean by word. When people say that something isn’t a word, they aren’t really making a testable claim about the objective linguistic status of the word; they’re making a sociolinguistic evaluation of the word. They may say that it’s not a word, but they really mean that it’s a word that’s not allowed in Standard English. This is because we think of Standard English as the only legitimate form of English. We think that the standard has words and grammar, while nonstandard dialects have nonwords and broken grammar, or no grammar at all. Yes, it’s important to recognize and teach the difference between Standard English and nonstandard forms, but it’s also important to be clear about the difference between facts about the language and our feelings about the language.

But the irregardless-haters can also take heart: the word has been around for at least a century now, and although many other new words have been coined and become part of Standard English in that time, irregardless shows no signs of moving towards acceptability. Most people who write for publication are well aware of the stigma attached to it, and even if they aren’t, few copyeditors are willing to let it into print. It’s telling that of the Oxford English Dictionary’s eight citations of the word, two merely cite the word in other dictionaries, three more are mentions or citations in linguistics or literary journals, and one more appears to be using the word ironically. We talk about the word irregardless—mostly just to complain about it—far more than we actually use it.

So yes, irregardless is a word, even though it’s nonstandard. You don’t have to like it, and you certainly don’t have to use it, but you also don’t have to worry about it becoming acceptable anytime soon.

This post also appears on Huffington Post.

24 Responses to Yes, Irregardless Is a Word

  1. Ian Loveless says:

    Comparing “irregardless” with “ain’t” further proves your point that there is no danger of a slippery slope scenario in which standards erode to the point that “irregardless” becomes standard. “Ain’t” is used far more often than “irregardless”, especially in popular music and film. It is even used ironically in edited prose for mass distribution. But everyone knows it’s not acceptable in Standard English, and that ain’t changing anytime soon, irregardless.

  2. Good point, Ian. A word can remain nonstandard for centuries. In fact, if I understand right, ain’t was once much more respectable and has become more stigmatized over the years. Sometimes the slope isn’t all that slippery, and sometimes it even goes both ways.

  3. Susan Adelson says:

    But, is “cleverer” a word?

  4. V.S. Kemanis says:

    I agree with you on “irregardless.” Is “wordhood” somewhere between “flirgle” and “irregardless”? I understand the meaning and discern a part of speech but cannot find it in the dictionary :)

  5. michael u says:

    Merriam-Webster Online did a great video on exactly this point. Not sure if we’re allowed to post links in the comments, I’ll give it a crack.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/video/0037-irregardless.htm

  6. I propose the following description of “ain’t”: it is acceptable in Standard English with the limitation that it is always used for emphatic effect (and often with a double negative), that effect being based precisely on its supposed unacceptability. That puts it in the interesting position of being a word whose acceptable use is dependent on the idea that it is unacceptable.

  7. Ben Zimmer says:

    Michael Rundell recently argued that “irregardless” is so rare outside of these meta-discussions of its acceptability that there are no grounds for including it in the Macmillan Dictionary. (Except they do actually include it in their American dictionary, so perhaps he’s just talking about British usage?)

  8. V.S. Kemanis: Excellent question! Wordhood is between the two in the sense that it’s obviously a word, but it’s not as established as irregardless Yet it’s also obviously more acceptable than either flirgle or irregardless. Its status as a word arises not from its currency but from the fact that it’s built out of readily accessible (and meaningful) word-bits. So even if the word wordhood had never been uttered before, you’d know what it meant and understand how to use it, even though my spellechecker is giving it a red underline.

    michael u: That is a great video. I should have thought to link to it in my post.

    Andrew Shields: Excellent point. You can only get away with using ain’t in Standard English if you’re using it self-consciously. It seems like a paradox, but it works.

    Ben: That’s interesting. I was surprised to find that so many of the OED‘s citations were mentions rather than uses. If you get rid of those, there isn’t much evidence for its use in written English.

  9. Andrew J says:

    Do you think it could be a mistake to take people who say “irregardless is not a word” to be making a scientific statement? Do linguists complain about people saying of behaviour “It’s just not done”? Clearly “it” is occasionally and shockingly done and if it really weren’t they would be more likely to say something like “It’s never actually done”. Doesn’t pragmatics come into play here?

    As for “cleverer”, @Susan, I say it is much more natural for me than “more clever”. I, who speak with a non-rhotic Australian accent, imagine that people who would have to rearticulate the /r/ might find it awkward and avoid it. But it’s just like clearer, mirror and [rural] juror, so maybe my imagination runs too wild.

  10. Good question, Andrew. I don’t take those who say “irregardless is not a word” to really be making scientific statements. They’re just making value statements in the form of scientific statements, and even though the pragmatics of such statements is usually clear, I think it’s important to point out that these are not the same thing.

    Sure, it’s clear to me what argument they’re really making, but I don’t think the people making such arguments see the difference. Most people are not used to thinking of language in terms of testable claims, and I think that needs to change.

  11. “Most people are not used to thinking of language in terms of testable claims”: that is such a perfect way of putting the problem concisely.

    Of course, it’s connected to a more general problem: many people don’t quite the idea of testable claims …

  12. Pingback: A prescriptivism with moral and political ends: The linguistic shalt‘s and shalt not‘s I can get behind | linguistic pulse

  13. From what I can tell, the arguments against irregardless could be equally applied to reduplication (except instead of a double negative, it would be a double positive, or a “four-folding”). So if a person dislikes irregardless, then they should probably edit out all instances of reduplication as well—and don’t linguists use that word all the time? :-)

  14. Avery says:

    Discrimination against “irregardless” and its users is pure classism. Judging the intelligence or education levels of people based on the use of a common word (and it is quite common in my part of the world,) is utter nonsense.

  15. Pingback: A prescriptivism with moral and political ends: The linguistic shalts and shalt nots I can get behind | linguistic pulse

  16. Pingback: ‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways | Sentence first

  17. Richard says:

    Avery’s assertion:

    “Discrimination against “irregardless” and its users is pure classism” is a misguided and tedious straw man argument.

    Dictionaries acknowledge that “irregardless” is substandard and not correct usage; they suggest using regardless instead. This would certainly give the impression that dictionaries discriminate the usage. Accordingly, if we heed Avery’s preposterous claim then we must assume that dictionaries practice classism.

    It is, nevertheless, deemed a word, and there lies the dichotomy. The word seems to have no credibility because of the prefix/suffix redundancy, which creates confusion and a nonsensical word.

    There’s also a taint of hypocrisy in Avery’s foolish claim, for everyone, including everyone on this forum, evaluates an individual’s education, and sometimes intelligence, by how he/she speaks, and this has nothing to do with classism; it’s just commonsense.

    • Richard: Please lay off the personal attacks. If you want to disagree with someone and argue a point, that’s fine. But do it with out the personal invectives.

  18. Richard says:

    Jonathan:

    I apologize, for I encourage civil discourse; however, my attacks were not ad hominem. My attacks were directed at the argument, not the person. Furthermore, “preposterous” and “foolish”–the two adjectives I used to characterized his argument– cannot be classified as “invectives”.

    Apropos:

    Terry Collmann says: ?January 15th, 2014, at 6:51 am

    “Richard, let me be blunt. You’re talking total rubbish. You’ve made a lazy, stupid generalisation, and when challenged you’ve been unable to back it up.”

    Terry Collmann says: ?January 21st, 2014, at 11:24 am |
    “Richard, are you seriously taking up the position that you’re not going to read any evidence against your argument because it’s written by people who disagree with you? Because that’s the most intellectually pathetic, cowardly drivel ever. I’m afraid you show clearly that you know nothing about the subject when you claim that “most academic linguists” are in “constant battle with the descriptive approach”.

    It’s quite obvious that Terry’s comments were ad hominem, vitriolic and confrontational, and can be accurately defined as “invectives”, but I don’t recall an admonishment from you. Perhaps there’s an explanation?

    Regardless, in the future I shall desist with the attacks and just offer my argument.

  19. The explanation is that I was too busy to read all the comments at the time, and it’s been long enough now that I didn’t see much point chastising people for remarks made weeks or months ago.

    But splitting hairs and saying “but they did it too!” is not going to help your case. Calling a claim or argument misguided, foolish, or preposterous is really just a not-so-subtle way to attack the person making the claim or argument. Yes, that’s an invective. Look it up.

  20. Richard says:

    Jonathan, I’m not trying to initiate another argument, but there seems to be a biased here. You did read Terry’s comment, for you responded to my comment by referring to his.

    Jonathon Owen says: ?January 15th, 2014, at 12:35 pm |
    Richard: “As Terry says, it’s a pretty weak argument to make a claim…”

    I responded to Terry and commented on his uncivil tone, whereas you did not. Keep in mind, two of his postings were highly invective and insulting, and they were essentially an ad hominem attack. Furthermore, I never asked you to chastise people for remarks made in the past. I just found it interesting and odd that you seemingly ignored another subscribers, (with whom you agree) vituperative rant directed at me but reprimand me for my “not-so-subtle” approach.

    Let’s introduce a little honesty into this discourse: I was and am quite familiar with “invective’s” definition.

    Dictionary.com
    invective ?
    in·vec·tive [in-vek-tiv] Show IPA
    noun
    1.
    vehement or violent denunciation, censure, or reproach.
    2.
    a railing accusation; vituperation.
    3.
    an insulting or abusive word or expression.

    OED
    invective, adj. and n.
    • View as: Outline |Full entry
    • Quotations: Show all |Hide all
    Pronunciation:
    /?n?v?kt?v/
    Forms: Also 15 en-.
    Etymology: < French invectif, -ive adjective, invective… (Show More)
    A. adj.
    Thesaurus »
    Categories »

    1. Using or characterized by denunciatory or railing language; inclined to inveigh; expressing bitter denunciation; vituperative, abusive. Now rare.

    Misguided, foolish and preposterous are not defined, nor classified, as “invectives”. They are neither denunciatory nor railing language.

    On the other hand Terry’s: “Intellectually cowardly drivel” and “You’re talking total rubbish.” “You’ve made a lazy stupid generalisation and when challenged you’ve been unable to back it up.” are clearly denunciations, which you did read, but chose to ignore.

    Is there a message here that I seem to be reading between the lines?

  21. Richard: Let me repeat myself, since you’re not listening. Splitting hairs and saying “but they did it too!” is not going to help your case. There is no hidden message here. I already explained why I was addressing you and not those who made their remarks two months ago. Please stop now or I will block you.

  22. Richard says:

    Jonanthan:
    I’ve obviously touched a nerve and a very raw one indeed; your defensiveness is quite apparent. I must assume that you exempt yourself from wrongdoing, for the reason that you’re the administrator of this forum.

    You’ve completely distorted my argument. Let me remind you that I immediately apologized for what you erroneously classified as “personal invectives”and I amiably offered to desist in the future.

    You’re employing a straw man argument by implying that I’m defending myself by saying “ but they did it too!” You’re trying to fabricate a scenario that never existed, and it’s quite clear in the thread of these comments.

    I only referred to Terry’s invectives, because I found it interesting that you neglected to reprimand him, given that his comments were far more denunciatory than mine. Furthermore, his comments were in two separate postings, which you read and which were equally vituperative.

    Regarding your postulation: “Splitting hairs and saying ‘but they did it too!’ is not going to help your case.” Jonathan, there is no “case”; I’m not defending myself, for there is no need. I already explained that what you erroneously considered as “personal attacks” were directed at the argument not the person.

    You’re either not familiar with the definition of “invectives” or you’re just fabricating a false accusation. “Misguided”, “preposterous”, and “foolish” are not distinguished as invectives. Do you understand the distinction?

    You said: “Let me repeat myself, since you’re not listening.” No Jonathan! you’re the one not listening. You’re the one being evasive and dishonest. Your explanation that you were too busy to read all the comments is false. As I said, you read Terry’s comment, because you referred to it when you responded to my comment, but you lack the integrity to admit it. I know why you did not chastise Terry and you know why; don’t insult my intelligence. For your information, those comments were not two months ago; they were barely five weeks ago.

    Now Jonathan you can exercise your power by banning me, but don’t underestimate the power of words, the truth and the internet.

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