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Q From Randall E Larson in Tucson: I have more than once seen the corruption irregardless used in some standard writings and with a straight face. Has it become acceptable?

A The word is thoroughly and consistently condemned in all American references I can find. But it’s also surprisingly common. It’s formed from regardless by adding the negative prefix ir-; as regardless is already negative, the word is considered a logical absurdity.

It’s been around a while: the Oxford English Dictionary quotes a citation from Indiana that appeared in Harold Wentworth’s American Dialect Dictionary of 1912. And it turns up even in the better newspapers from time to time: as here from the New York Times of 8 February 1993: “Irregardless of the benefit to children from what he calls his ‘crusade to rescue American education,’ his own political miscalculations and sometimes deliberate artlessness have greatly contributed to his present difficulties”.

But, as I say, it’s still generally regarded by people with an informed opinion on the matter as unacceptable. The Third Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary states firmly that “the label ‘nonstandard’ does not begin to do justice to the status of this word” and “it has no legitimate antecedents in either standard or nonstandard varieties of English”. Some writers even try to turn it into a non-word, virtually denying its existence, which is pretty hard to do in the face of the evidence. The level of abuse hurled at the poor thing is astonishingly high, almost as great as that once directed at hopefully. It seems to have become something of a linguistic shibboleth.

That’s strange because, as Professor Laurence Horn of Yale University points out, the duplication of negative affixes is actually quite common in English. Few users query words such as debone and unravel because they are so familiar. In earlier times there were even more such words, many recorded from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: unboundless, undauntless, uneffectless, unfathomless and many others.

Grammarians of the eighteenth century and after — who had a greater sense of logic than feel for the language — did much to stamp them out. They argued that, in language as in mathematics, two negatives make a positive: putting two negatives together cancels them out. This has been the basis for condemnation of statements like “I never said nothing to nobody”, which aren’t standard British or American English. But in many other languages — and in some local or dialectal forms of English both today and in earlier times — multiple negatives are intensifiers, adding emphasis.

Irregardless has a fine flow about it, with a stronger negative feel than regardless that some people obviously find attractive. Indeed, the stress pattern of the word probably influenced the addition of the prefix, as the stress in regardless is on gar, which makes it sound insufficiently negative, despite the -less suffix.

So the precedents are all on the side of irregardless and — despite the opinions of the experts — I suspect that the word will become even more popular in the US in the future. For the moment, though, it is best avoided in formal writing.

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Page created 24 Jul 1999; Last updated 14 Aug 1999