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% Why you don't want “irregardless” to be a word

If you haven't ever heard about the controversy around “irregardless”, here it is in a nutshell: “irregardless” means the same thing as “regardless”; some people mistakenly use “irregardless” instead of “regardless”; everyone is arguing about whether “irregardless” should be considered “correct” or at least a word.

Yes, from the grammatical standpoint “irregardless” is less correct than “regardless”. On the other hand, “sponsor” is less correct than “sponsorer”, but nobody is going to start using “sponsorer” upon learning this, so it's not actually a question of grammatical correctness. Neither it is “we can't get rid of historical exceptions but we can at least try not to introduce new ones” – “irregardless” has been in use for more than 200 years, “it's illogical” isn't sufficient reason to hate it.

(Also, if you want to say that “sponsorer” can't be formed from “sponsor” because it already has “or”, consider the word “armorer” first. You can consider any of them correct/logical/whatever, but not both.)

So, why does “irregardless” drive people mad, but when you tell people that “colonel” is pronounced like “kernel”, they merely nod, say “weird English pronunciation is so weird”, and then share this amusing fact with their friends?

First let's look at just one piece of the puzzle: people don't like it that “irregardless” is in dictionaries now (both Merriam-Webster and Oxford English Dictionary, by the way).

Exhibit A:

And now apparently, it's an official word that is found in the dictionary. Do you consider this to be part of the natural evolution of language, and thus, not something to be annoyed by? I personally find it hard not to resent a word that was formed from ignorance.

Exhibit B:

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.

Except that almost all dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive, which means that they aren't trying to record only “correct” words – thus, “irregardless” absolutely belongs there because that's the explicit stated purpose of dictionaries. However, instead of using the moment to explain to the student that a dictionary doesn't make a word legitimate, the teacher panicked. Why?

Because dictionaries actually do make words legitimate. Or rather, being included into a major dictionary gives the word some amount of legitimacy, even if it's not what the creators of the dictionary want. And teachers don't want “irregardless” to have more legitimacy, because it would give people an excuse to keep using it.

Okay, so legitimacy is what distinguishes “coronel”, “chiefs”, and “drank” from “irregardless”, “conversate”, and “I could care less”. The next question is: what makes a word legitimate?

If you're googling now for something like “who defines standard english”, you can stop – English doesn't have a language regulator. However, language regulators don't make anything legitimate either. For a proof, look at Russian.

In Russian there are 3 genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The word “coffee” looks like lots of other neuter-gendered Russian words, but thanks to a historical accident it was masculine, and if you used it as if it was neuter, you were condemned by all educated people. What do you think happened when the Russian Language Institute announced that from now on “coffee” could be a word of either masculine or neuter gender? Since it was making the language less retarded, educated people were probably going “hooray, finally our language is a bit more logical”, right?

Nope. Educated people – writers and editors – said “the important thing is to keep using the language that we think is right”, “nowadays a lot of rubbish is being made legal”, and “it's wrong to make illiteracy a norm”.

It's not crazy Russians being crazy, tho, the same thing happens whenever any spelling reform is proposed. Right now the French are trying to get rid of the circumflex (“coût” becomes “cout”). What are people saying about it?

Many users argued the changes were “dumbing down” the French language. One Twitter user said the reforms were a “paroxysm of dumbing down”, while another claimed: “To simplify, is to become poorer. A language is rich and beautiful precisely because it is complex.”

Others claimed French spellings should not be made easier for pupils. One user said: “We had to learn to write properly, they can too”.

Yep, sure. The most beautiful language in the world must be Hungarian, then.

Jokes aside, there's at last enough quotes data for the answer. You don't hate “irregardless” because it's illogical. English is full of illogical things – if you cared about that, you'd be using “tho” instead of “though” (because the most stupid thing about English is its pronunciation rules, period), you'd welcome the attempts to replace “you” with “u”, and you'd be upset about “sheep” and other words that don't follow the usual rules of plural formation. However, most of the time your brain ignores everything that is wrong about English, because otherwise you'd become clinically depressed by now.

The answer to why you hate “irregardless” has been already mentioned earlier, you just didn't notice:

I personally find it hard not to resent a word that was formed from ignorance.

Forget about legitimacy, it's vague and ill-defined. What's the biggest, most obvious difference between “irregardless” and “sheep” (the plural)?

“Irregardless” is used by people who haven't studied. “Sheep” is used by people who have.

You don't hate the word, you hate people who use it – and you don't want it to be legitimised, because it means that ignorance would be legitimised, and oh no, they would win. You wish English was more logical, but in the meantime you'll be punishing and condemning everyone who doesn't conform to the rules, even tho it's impossible to make English more logical without conforming to the rules. When somebody writes “sheeps”, or “shrinked”, or “PIN number”, or especially “u” or “k”, your brain automatically imagines that they're dumb (and the same happens when you see a foreigner who can't speak English well), and only then you reject the word. Not before.

And you know what? Normally, illogical things and exceptions would die on their own – they aren't useful to stupid people, and there are more stupid people than smart ones. But since you're motivated by “not looking stupid” above “not being stupid”, and since you are more scared of being judged than of doing something wrong, and since some illogical things are useful to you (they let you signal that you're not stupid, after all), ultimately it's going to be you who keeps them alive.

Related links

Steven Pinker's “The Language Instinct” has a chapter dedicated to this:

Imagine that you are watching a nature documentary. The video shows the usual gorgeous footage of animals in their natural habitats. But the voiceover reports some troubling facts. Dolphins do not execute their swimming strokes properly. White-crowned sparrows carelessly debase their calls. Chickadees' nests are incorrectly constructed, pandas hold bamboo in the wrong paw, the song of the humpback whale contains several well-known errors, and monkeys' cries have been in a state of chaos and degeneration for hundreds of years. Your reaction would probably be, What on earth could it mean for the song of the humpback whale to contain an “error”? Isn't the song of the humpback whale whatever the humpback whale decides to sing? Who is this announcer, anyway?

But for human language, most people think that the same pronouncements not only are meaningful but are cause for alarm. Johnny can't construct a grammatical sentence. As educational standards decline and pop culture disseminates the inarticulate ravings and unintelligible patois of surfers, jocks, and valley girls, we are turning into a nation of functional illiterates: misusing hopefully, confusing lie and lay, treating data as a singular noun, letting our participles dangle. English itself will steadily decay unless we get back to basics and start to respect our language again.

“Word rage – not!” discusses the same thing but from a slightly different viewpoint – it's not merely about being smart or stupid, but also about being somebody who cares about such things. (And once you have made something a part of your identity, you lose the ability to think about it clearly.)

But for pop grammarians like Truss, you can't help feeling that the self-mockery is a cover for self-congratulation. She may make fun of herself as a stickler, but she clearly considers herself to be one of an elect – someone whose sleep is troubled by a misplaced apostrophe even if it's twenty mattresses down.

That's the theme I keep hearing in all those outbursts of language rage. The melodramatic tone may be intended to stave off the charge that you take these matters too seriously, but it's also a way of affirming your solidarity with the thin red line of people who pride themselves on taking this stuff very seriously indeed.

“The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming” further explains how “grammar nazism” is a social phenomenon and not a linguistic one:

By social annoyance I mean a distaste for the way someone looks or acts that sees its object as an instance of a type. Someone's appearance or behavior gets under your skin, and it's not just that particular person, it's the whole class of people who look like that or act like that. [...]

By public griping I mean the process of sharing your annoyance with a sympathetic group. You might trade anecdotes around the coffee machine or the dinner table, or write a letter to the editor. People enjoy listening in groups to skillful expressions of social annoyance, and so stand-up comedians do a lot of this. [...]

Linguistic sins, real or imaginary, are not really what's driving [the process of griping]. And the original emotion of irritation, though sometimes expressed in colorful displays of (mock?) disgust and anger, is also secondary, I think. The real key is the public ritual that Christopher Howse called “naming and shaming”, which helps the group to converge on a set of norms. (While giving everyone a good deal of pleasure along the way, apparently.)

While social annoyance is sometimes an original emotion, public griping reinforces it and in many cases creates it out of nothing. This is especially true for the linguistic forms of this process. Sentence-initial “however”, for example, annoys many people who would never have noticed it if they hadn't been trained to do so by the public griping about this alleged abuse that Will Strunk started a hundred years ago. [...]

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