Irregardless: Still not OK

My favorite e-mail each month is the Q & A from the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). This places me firmly in the “rear-brainer” category according to Mike Hughes.

At any rate, I was relieved to see that CMOS is holding the line on “irregardless” after a reader cited this from Wikipedia:

The term “irregardless” has begun to move towards acceptance because incorrect words or grammatical conventions are absorbed by the English language based on common usage.

(I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that there is a Wikipedia entry for this word, but I was.)

To its credit, Wikipedia includes this admonition:

It is apparent that the word originated from regional deviations and was subsequently re-introduced to the wider English-speaking community, and thus the use of the term should be avoided if one takes the position that this word should not enter common use.

But the CMOS answer lady is more blunt.

At the moment, . . . there’s no reason to change a perfectly good word like “regardless” to one that is bound to raise the hackles of many readers.

Dear readers, here’s hoping your hackles remain prone for the foreseeable future.

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9 Responses to Irregardless: Still not OK

  1. Mike Hughes says:

    You certainly have me pegged as the populist I am. When arbitrary rules (by that I mean there is no reason “irregardless” is not a word except that a group of self-proclaimed gatekeepers say it is not) trump popular usage, we introduce a secret handshake that says we only let “our kind of people” into the club. I would rather fight over usage where precision of meaning is at stake. We all know what “irregardless” means; our smug objections to it are elitist at best and hegemonic at worst.

  2. hharkness says:

    I would rather not fight at all, but irregardless, thanks for your comment.

  3. Martha Stevens says:

    There are plenty of good nonwords making their way into the language used by technical writers. In addition to using nonwords, I break all kinds of “rules” in my writing. I use contractions. I end sentences in prepositions. I use words that didn’t exist even a year ago. But there’s a question of quality. Irregardless is a crappy nonword, as the Wikipedia article goes on to explain: ”Since the prefix ir- means ‘not’ (as it does with irrespective), and the suffix -less means ‘without,’ irregardless is a double negative.” I don’t think refusing to use low-quality language makes you a “rear-brainer” as defined by Mike. I’m pretty sure nobody would describe me as a rear-brainer 🙂

    If I were using words like obfuscate or ameliorate in my work, THAT would be a secret handshake. Using correct words within the perceived vocabulary level of your target audience is not a secret handshake; it’s an obligation of those of us who happen to be responsible for presenting information to readers.

    I really appreciate Mike’s work and get a lot of great take-aways from his blog, but I’m afraid I’m going to come down on the other side of the fence on this one 🙂

  4. Mike Hughes says:

    I certainly agree with Martha’s logical analysis of the word “irregardless” and why it is not necessary, but language sometimes has its own logic. And this logic is tested by a kind of linguistic law of evolution: useful words and grammars live, non-useful ones die. “Irregardless” seems to be in good health and thriving. For example, when I spell-checked my entry this morning in MS Word, it did not flag “irregardless” as a misspelled word. So not only does it have popular appeal, one of the gatekeepers has already let it in.

    Language makes lots of use of redundancy to protect the integrity of a communication. For example, a correct sentence would be “I have five brothers.” Why the “s” on the end of “brother?” The fact that I said I have five already told the listener there were more than one. The answer is that language includes redundancies in its grammar that guard against the message getting corrupted as it is transmitted.

    So maybe “irregardless” seems to be winning the survival of the fittest contest because speakers and listeners prefer the negation at the beginning of the word and are not bothered by the redundant confirmation at the end.

    A great read on this topic is “Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life” by Jeremy Campbell that relates the history of information theory and the really cool work of Claude Shannon who discovered that communication corrupts according to same mathematical patterns of the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

    At times there is an underlying method to the madness of a living language.

  5. Everybody knows what “inflammable” means, right? Obviously, it means not flammable.

    Except it doesn’t. And pity the poor company that sells a million cans of “inflammable” kerosene. There will be blood. And burns. And lawsuits.

    Language matters. Everybody knows what “ain’t” means. But I hope I don’t see it in a technical manual.

  6. Miranda says:

    I don’t think inflammable is considered a “non-word”. In fact, according to the online Merriam Webster dictionary, inflammable is actually about 200 years older than the word flammable. The language evolved, which I think supports Mike’s point.

    Personally, I would not use “irregardless” in a technical manual. However, I do believe that humanity has the ability to adapt language for reasons that may not be obvious. I like that Mike challenges our perspective and attempts to examine the reasons some non-words work.

    As a southerner, I also think it’s just a shame that “ain’t” gets picked on so often. Ain’t ain’t never done nothing to nobody!

  7. themartyparty says:

    I sometimes have more thoughts/words on a topic than are really appropriate for a comment on somebody else’s blog. So I’ve done what I’ve meant to do for a while, and created my own. I really appreciate the inspirtation, Holly and Mike!

    http://marthastevens.wordpress.com/

  8. themartyparty says:

    Miranda, m-w has definitions for both inflammable and irregardless, but that doesn’t mean they’re not nonwords. M-W defines nonword as “a word that has no meaning, is not known to exist, or is disapproved.” Since I disapprove, I can categorized (for myself) these as nonwords 🙂

    Any you are too right that Mike challenges our perspectives! It’s great to have him around to keep things lively and engaging.

  9. Craig Haiss says:

    The word “irregardless” has always made me cringe.

    I can accept that language evolves over time. But English is already such a difficult language to learn. If we continue to let double-negatives and other rule breakers into the dictionary, the rules and exceptions will only become more complicated. We have to draw the line somewhere, right?

    Great post!

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