The use of irregardless to mean “regardless” is frequently condemned, with its critics regarding it as both illogical and ungrammatical. Indeed, The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style has gone so far as to characterize it as “semiliterate”. However, irregardless does appear in most dictionaries, so does it really deserve such shabby treatment? Is there an argument to be made in favour of its inclusion in standard language? Let us delve in and take a look at this controversial adverb.
Some Background Information
The origins of irregardless are not clear, but one commonly cited theory is that it is a portmanteau of irrespective and regardless. Its earliest recorded use is in a poem from 1795 entitled “The Old Woman and her Tabby” that appeared in a Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper.1
But death, irregardless of tenderest ties,
Resolv’d the good Betty, at length, to bereave
Irregardless does appear in several 19th-century North American sources, especially in quoted testimony, which seems to indicate that irregardless was reserved to spoken language.2 However, it is only in the 20th century that irregardless seems to have gained wider usage and become a subject of debate. In 1923, an American journal, Literary Digest, published an article entitled “Is there such a word as irregardless in the English language?”.3
While it has been considered an error by most reference works in the past, dictionaries have included irregardless on the basis that its usage, even if proscribed, is well established. However, it is always labelled as “criticized” or “non-standard”, meaning that it is used by some speakers but considered a mistake by others and should be avoided in formal contexts. Remember: the fact that something is in the dictionary doesn’t mean that we should all use it.
The Issue at Hand
So why exactly is irregardless considered incorrect? The reason most commonly provided is that because the prefix ir- serves to negate the word to which it is affixed and that regardless already contains the negative suffix -less, irregardless actually means “with regard to” instead of “without regard to”. Moreover, since regardless is already a negative word, irregardless could be considered a double negative. Though double negatives are a standard feature in many languages, their use is discouraged in English. Phrases such as I didn’t do nothing are considered ungrammatical and a potential source of confusion.
However, to some extent, irregardless is likely a victim of its notoriety. The word has entered the popular imagination as the incorrect word par excellence, making frequent appearances in film and television as a humorous marker of ignorance; characters who use irregardless are attempting, unsuccessfully, to use high-prestige language. As a result, other words such as unthaw that are also criticized for being illogical don’t seem to garner nearly as much attention or opprobrium. Its presence in pop culture has also resulted in the impression that irregardless is used more frequently than it is in reality.
The Other Side of the Coin
Despite all the negative press, is there an argument to be made for the acceptability of irregardless?
Merriam-Webster has recently argued that since the prefix ir- sometimes serves as an intensifier in words such as irrelentlessly, irremediless and irresistless, irregardless could be thought of as an emphatic form of regardless.
However, given the rarity of the words cited above and of the use of ir- as an intensifier, this argument is unlikely to satisfy the critics of irregardless.
The most compelling argument for a greater acceptance of irregardless is that it has had a stable meaning of “regardless” across a long period of time. After all, language is capable of incorporating contradictory or illogical elements. As we have argued in Language Matters articles before, the meaning of a word or phrase is not always dictated by its constituent parts. For example, the expression I could care less to indicate one’s indifference is widely accepted, even if its constituent parts would seem to indicate an opposite meaning.
However, the long-standing and near-universal exclusion of irregardless from standard language means that it is difficult to cite its long heritage as a justification for its acceptability. If anything, irregardless is well established as an error. Where it does appear in written documents, it is usually either surrounded by quotation marks or followed by [sic].4
So, should we use irregardless? While this adverb has been around for some time, it is still considered either ungrammatical or illogical by most English speakers, and dictionaries generally specify that it is not part of standard language. Someone who uses irregardless in an un-self-conscious way risks appearing ignorant. Unless you are trying to be humorous, it is best to avoid using irregardless in all contexts; use regardless or irrespective instead.
“State House of Correction and Reformatory”. Joint Documents of the State of Michigan for the Years 1893. Lansing, Robert Smith Co. State Printers and Binders, 1893. p. 447. Retrieved on July 24, 2020. ↩