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.

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I welcome all comments and arguments, especially if you cite your sources (no need to use MLA style or anything).