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.