26 Aug 2008

Irregardless

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Contain your righteous indignation for a moment and consider the much-maligned word irregardless. There are two arguments typically advanced against it, usually together: first, that it is "not a word," and second, that it is a kind of double negative. The first claim is simply stupid. By any reasonable definition of what a word is, of course it's a word. Just because a word irritates you does not demote the utterance from wordhood. The second claim is based on the fact that the prefix ir-, which is a variant of in- used before r, and the suffix -less are both morphemes that express a negative meaning. Since irregardless and regardless mean the same thing, the ir- is redundant. This argument amounts to claiming that irregardless is a logically ill-formed word, which may in fact be the idea behind the badly phrased first claim. This conclusion depends on two assumptions: first, that the multiple marking of the negative is illogical/redundant, and second, granted that redundancy, that words so formed are unacceptable and should be banned (or at least deprecated) as non-standard. Both ideas, however, are insupportable as general propositions. If we adopted them as serious theoretical positions, we would need to ban a whole host of words that are unquestionably standard. Bishop Lowth was not the first person to complain about the double negative, but we certainly have him to thank for the assertion that two negatives make a positive (or as he put it, "Two negatives in English destroy one another.") Yet this assertion is based on a flawed mathematical analogy (multiply two negative numbers and you get a positive one). If this analogy were valid, three negatives should be acceptable (e.g., "I can't never get no satisfaction.") Clearly, that is not standard either. And if we are to indulge in mathematical metaphors, why multiplication and not addition? Add two negative numbers and you get another negative number. A double negative is not illogical, but it could be considered redundant. Yet redundant morphemes occur fairly often in Standard English. Consider, for example, lesser, which adds the comparative suffix -er to the already comparative less. Or what about children, which is actually formed from two plural markers: the Old English r-plural, childer (now otherwise extinct) and the -en plural, as in oxen. Moreover, there are a number of words where the negative prefix un- performs the role of an intensifier rather than a negative, for example unloose or unravel. So there's good precedent for treating the ir- in irregardless as an intensifier, a precedent reinforced by the fact that in-, along with its variant forms im-, ir-, and il-, also frequently serves as an intensifier rather than a negator, for example in incandescent, increase, etc. (Since irregardless appears to have been formed from a blend of regardless and irrespective, where the ir- is actually negative, though, the ir- in this case does seem to come from the not form of ir-, so the other in- probably only serves as an influence rather than a direct source.) In short, irregardless is not formed with maximum economy, but it is not unusual in that regard. So is irregardless all right to use? Probably not. The reasons that it has become hated by self-appointed gatekeepers of English usage are bad reasons, but that doesn't alter the fact that it's generally avoided in edited prose, and so it does not really qualify as Standard English. Moreover, it differs from ordinary non-Standard English (for example words like ain't) in that it is not a word that is found in casual spoken English either. That makes it the word of a poseur. Use it and you commit the grave sin of pretending to more education than you have.