December 12, 2013

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.

Sociolinguistics, Usage, Words 23 Replies to “Yes, Irregardless Is a Word”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


23 thoughts on “Yes, <i>Irregardless</i> Is a Word

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

      Author’s gravatar

      Why don’t you consult a few dictionaries and tell me? 🙂

    Author’s gravatar

    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 🙂

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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?)

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    “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 …

    Author’s gravatar

    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? 🙂

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    […] more than once, and you know what it means and how it’s used, chances are it’s real. As Jonathon Owen wrote, “words get their wordhood not from etymology or logic or some cultural institution granting […]

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    It’s too bad flirgle isn’t a word, it has a rather nice sound.

    Author’s gravatar

    I’m late to the game here, maybe too late, but in case you’re still monitoring these comments, here’s mine.

    I DO use “irregardless,” but only sometimes. I didn’t know that I used it until maybe ten years ago when I first heard complaints about it and started paying close attention to my own speech. I appear use the word in accordance with some rule of rhythm in speech. There are places where the extra unstressed syllable either makes my speech flow better, or subtly shifts the meaning of the word by changing how it is stressed. This is all very vague, but I can’t more accurately describe how I use the word. because I can’t observe why I make a word choice that I can only make when I’m not observing myself (insert analogy to the Uncertainty Principle). But I do wonder about how the rhythm of speech affects word choice, word arrangement, etc.

      Author’s gravatar

      Have you read Word by Word by Kory Stamper? I don’t remember the specifics, but in one chapter she talks about some the different nuances that irregardless carries for people who use it.

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