Irregardless Versus Regardless
If it's in the dictionary, does that make it a real word?
Today's topic is irregardless.
Hi, Grammar Girl. I'm an English teacher in Boston, Massachusetts, and I am freaking out. One of my students tells me that irregardless is now a word, and apparently it's been added to some dictionaries. Can you clear this up for me. This is serious panic time.
In the immortal words of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Don't panic. Irregardless is a word, but it's not a proper word, and your student's assertion that it's in some dictionaries is a great opportunity to talk about the different kinds of dictionaries and the different kinds of entries in dictionaries.
Irregardless Versus Regardless
First, let's talk about irregardless. Some people mistakenly use irregardless when they mean “regardless.” Regardless means “regard less,” “without regard,” or despite something. For example, Squiggly will eat chocolate regardless of the consequences.
The prefix ir- (i-r) is a negative prefix, so if you add the prefix ir to a word that's already negative like regardless, you're making a double-negative word that literally means “without without regard.”
Language experts speculate that irregardless comes from a combination of the words regardless and irrespective and that another reason people might say "irregardless" is that they are following the pattern of words like irregular and irreplaceable. But regardless already has the -less suffix on the end, so it's not like those other words.
Standard Versus Nonstandard English
Now, on to dictionaries. Although it's true that the American Heritage Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, and the Oxford English Dictionary all list the word irregardless, they also note that it's considered nonstandard. Listing a word as nonstandard is a way that dictionaries concede that a word is in common use, but isn't really a proper word. Standard language is defined as the language spoken by educated native speakers (1), but comprehensive dictionaries also include nonstandard words, dialect, colloquialisms, and jargon--words like ain't, conversate, and irregardless. It seems pretty common for people to look up a word in a dictionary, and if it's there, they think it's fine to use that word every circumstance. It's the "Look, it's a word!" phenomenon. But you have to look a little further to see what kind of word it is, and if it's nonstandard in some way, then use it with caution. You'll sound uneducated if you go around saying things like I ain't gonna conversate with him irregardless of the consequences.
Sometimes words make the transition from nonstandard to standard English. My dictionaries assure me that snuck is a word that falls into this category (although I know that will upset some of you). But since many educated people still rail against irregardless, and the word isn't commonly seen in edited writing, I don't believe irregardless is going to make the transition to standard language any time soon.
Prescriptive Versus Descriptive Dictionaries
And one final thought about dictionaries—irregardless was listed in every dictionary I checked, but sometimes words will show up in one dictionary and not another. And it's important to realize that there are different kinds of dictionaries. For example, there are prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries. A prescriptive dictionary focuses on the way the language should be according to traditional rules, and a descriptive dictionary focuses on the language that is actually in use by the population. So a descriptive dictionary is likely to include words that a prescriptive dictionary would leave out. Many older dictionaries are prescriptive, but most modern dictionaries are descriptive. Some people think the American Heritage Dictionary is the most prescriptive modern dictionary (2). It still includes nonstandard words like irregardless, but it seems to make stronger statements against them than other dictionaries.
1. nonstandard. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Springfield: Merriam-Webster. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nonstandard (accessed February 7, 2008).
2. RBB. "Booklist review of the American Heritage Dictionary," Amazon.com http://tinyurl.com/yvwkup (accessed February 7, 2008).