Friday, March 20, 2009

Diction Wars: Regardless vs. Irregardless

From the Word Nerd Mailbag:

Dear Word Master (oh please, you're too much . . . but I'll allow it),

What’s the difference between regardless and irregardless? I hear people use both in the same contexts AND my spellchecker doesn’t recognize irregardless. What’s going on here? Which one’s right??

Spellchecked in Spokane

Dear 'Checked,

The great Cub slugger Sammy Sosa used to say, "Irregarless of wha'ever happen." And I used to laugh at him with fiendish glee.

But irregardless is a word, just not a very good one. I checked out what Merriam-Webster had to say about it, and they suspect it to be the love child of irrespective and regardless. The thing I love about it is that it manages to bring a double negative into a single word.

The prefix ir- denotes the negative of the root to follow (irrational is not rational), while the suffix -less indicates the complete lack of the preceding (Larry Bird, the chinless wonder, has no chin). So irregardless should technically describe a state of not being without regard for something, a watered-down version of regardful, that is to say, not completely without regard, but perhaps not entirely overwhelmed with regard either. (Ironically enough, regardful gets flagged by my spell checker, while irregardless roams free.) But, alas, people still use it in place of regardless, so the short answer to your question is . . . no difference.

The simple fact of the matter is, people use irregardless quite commonly and have for about 100 years. That's what I love about language, the democracy of it all. The authority of the rules of grammar is granted by the consent of the governed. We agree to sit through English class, but we reserve the right to rise up, make new words, change the rules of usage according to the styles that we deem fit, and there is absolutely nothing the grammarians can do except issue their haughty tsk-tsk's and resign themselves to chronicling the new rules as they evolve.

Language is alive. It grows, changes, aches, and adapts. It still deserves our respect but will continue to flourish irregardless. . . . But you should still probably use regardless.

Monday, February 23, 2009

En vs. Em

I was recently asked what the point was to the "em dash vs. en dash" argument. And although I've found the Internets don't take kindly to the finer distinctions of dash-hyphen relations, that won't stop me from posting my answer for you here.

The difference between an en dash and an em dash is like the difference between a medium Slurpee and a large Slurpee; the Ethan Hawke/Gwyneth Great Expectations and the PBS miniseries Great Expectations; the 50-yard dash and the 100-yard dash. They are of the same essence, but they are not at all the same.

An en dash conveys continuity. The party will be 10–?. Kids 4–6 may attend. The season finale of Lost will be on 8–10. The en dash connects, it bridges, it slides, it moves. On a tombstone, the en dash between the year of birth and the year of death represents those precious years that constituted life.

An em dash signifies a break. It is the dramatic pause, written. Obi Wan never told you—I am your father. Amy Grant—the fairy godmother of contemporary Christian music—is right here with us tonight. I'd like you to do something for me—drop dead. The em dash lets the reader know something big is coming. It introduces that parenthetical phrase that carries too much weight to be considered a side note, and it bows out that golden nugget of truth with more flair than a closing parenthesis but without the casual subtlety of a pair of commas. It stops the eye in its tracks for the delivery of an important message in a way a colon could only hope to do.

And then there's the hyphen, which indicates rapid-fire succession of words. It's what happens when two words hook up. If they stay together long enough, they might just get married and become a new word all their own. Birth and day hitched up to form birth-day and became birthday long ago. In the world of words, it was bigger than Prince Charles and Lady Di.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


I was recently tempted to use ensconced as a synonym for entrenched. If you've followed the links, you know how foolish I feel. Entrenched is more an embattled, impervious state of being, whereas ensconced is a pleasant little settled situation. Protection is involved, but, I don't know, it just doesn't seem as ugly.

I like that word, ensconced. It makes me think of scones. There should probably be a more astute observation here, but the whole skull, defensive, protecting, candle-holding etymology just didn't do a lot for me. But scones, entirely unrelated to sconces in any form of diction whatsoever, are much more satisfying. Not so much verbally. They're just really yummy.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Trailer Park

Dear Wordsmith,

Why do people say movie "trailer" instead of "preview" nowadays?

And why do they call it a trailer? Wouldn't that indicate something AFTER the movie. I didn't look this up in the dictionary because I figured they would give me the definition of the kind of house some people live in.


Curious & confused

Well, C&C (love your music factory, by the way), I did some searching, and the adventure revealed many wonderful things. I'll try to tackle them in order.

1. Ironically enough, very few people actually say "nowadays" nowadays.

2. Even more ironically, the term trailer actually dates back to 1912, according to the Straight Dope. So it is by no means a neologism, although it is more recent than the initial use of the term nowadays, which debuted in the 14th Century.

3. They were originally called trailers because they were shown at the end of films. It didn't take long for the folks to figure out they were much more effective when shown before viewers left the theater . . . marketing genius at work.

4. For whatever reason, it took forever for people to stop calling them trailers. Since forever has not yet run its course, people are still calling them trailers.

5. I believe there is a word for any word or phrase that remains in use even after waving goodbye to its etymological validity. Expressions like "dialing" or "hanging up" a phone still persist even though it is rare for either one to be done literally. I remember reading this term and discussing it at length, but an extensive search has yielded no fruit.

6. The search did, however, bring me back to the word retronym, which is a term for words that are forced into existence by developments beyond their control. Terms like "acoustic guitar" or "wireless remote" or "manual transmission" all came into being because the redundancy has vanished. For instance, had five more such films never been made, no one ever would have uttered the words "Rocky One." But alas. Alack. There were many more Rocky's, and thus many more reasons to place the retronymic roman numeral uno after the Oscar-worthy Rocky. I remember this word in connection with the yet-to-be-relocated word mentioned in number 5, because both retronym and my verbal John Doe became the main topics of the unforgettable discussion about the apparently quite forgettable word.

7. Arggh.

Well, C-squared, I hope that helps clarify things for you. Unfortunately, I am more deeply mired in confusion than ever.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ode to Ellipses

Oh, dear ellipses with your three evenly spaced points, you finisher of unfinished thoughts, you beautiful little . . .

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


In trivia I recently explored the word kudos to discern whether it could exist in the singular. My M-W posse didn't fail me, giving a lengthy explanation on the back formation of the singular version, kudo. In that lovely little treatise, they alluded to the fact that the words cherry and pea are singular backformations of Greek words that look plural in English. Unfortunately, neither of their definitions yielded any hearty etymological fruit. So I had to search elsewhere for the full scoop.

I imagine other people might have dissimilar reactions (or none at all), but I love this about the English language. We just make up stuff, but we do it so brazenly, yet artfully. So-called grammar Nazis will protest at the slightest departure from the so-called standards, but a true linguist will exploit the tiniest loophole to cook up new verbal recipes in this melting pot of a language. Yesterday's grammatical affront becomes tomorrow's literary haute cuisine. Yummy. (Which, I just learned, finds its etymological roots in yum-yum.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Say, Say, Say

Why is it, I wondered, that naysayers say "nay," but soothsayers don't say "sooth"? If either of the two were going to be contrary, I would expect it to be the naysayer, wouldn't you?

So I decided to search. As it turns out, soothe actually comes from the Middle English word for verify, which comes from the Old English word for truth. So, according to their marketing, soothsayers at least claim to be truth tellers, presumably being people who tell the truth about the future. Be that as it may . . . or as it may be in the future, this left me more confused about the word soothe. I mean, come on, do people who soothe really tell the truth?

I would expect a soothsayer to be just as reliable (if not more) in matters of fact as someone who just plain soothes. When you see someone in need of soothing, is your first thought, "Hey, just tell them the truth"? No. Because you know there's nothing soothing about "Yes, you are a loser," or "No, it's not the jeans' fault that you look fat," or "I don't know why she broke up with you. There are so very many reasons, all of which I assume would have been obvious to her when she first met you." Sure, you can use truth to soothe, because lies are so often the reason behind our distress . . . but the act of soothing is usually more strongly associated with telling people what they want to hear than with telling them the plain-faced truth.

I've never gone to one, but perhaps that is the secret of a successful soothsaying business: tell the people the future they want to hear. And maybe that is the mystery behind this strange etymology. Naysayers will claim to tell you the truth about soothsayers and those soothed by them: it is not the etymology of soothe that is in question, it is our understanding of truth.

In summary, soothsayers say what soothlisteners want to hear, while naysayers say nay to the idea that soothsayers tell the truth, because all a naysayer really wants to hear is that the truth that soothes is not truth at all, and in that dark corner of skepticism, the naysayer is in fact soothed by saying nay to the soothsayers who soothe with what could not be truth, thus completing the ironic circle of the soothing nays and the naying soothe.