One problem with having so many dictionaries available is that they often don’t agree—on definitions, spellings or even whether something is a “real” word. Irregardless, having so many dictionaries available allows one to trace how “non-words” become “real words.”
If you now find yourself regaining consciousness after reading the word “irregardless,” get the smelling salts ready, because more shocks are coming. If you didn’t flinch, you’re probably a) American; b) from a more urban area; or c) not consulted by your friends on matters of grammar.
Many of us have been told that “irregardless” is not a word, because it means the same as the perfectly good word “regardless” and because the “ir” prefix creates a double negative. (“Less” is a negative suffix meaning “without”; “ir” is what is called a “negative participle,” making what follows it negative. Ergo, “irregardless” means “not without regard,” but not in the flattering sense.)
Indeed, those dictionaries that include “irregardless”—which is most of them, now—call it “nonstandard” or “disputed” English. Most note that the word is probably derived from a combination of “regardless” and “irrespective,” and that it was first spotted in the early 20th century. But they disagree on just how nonstandard it is.
The Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary notes, “Those who use it, including on occasion educated speakers, may do so from a desire to add emphasis.” That’s being kind, because it assumes the “educated speakers” know it’s considered nonstandard. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one used by most news publications, calls it “a nonstandard or humorous usage,” which is also being kind. The American Heritage Dictionary is a little more honest, saying: “Irregardless is a word that many mistakenly believe to be correct usage in formal style, when in fact it is used chiefly in nonstandard speech or casual writing.” The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, however, is perhaps the most, um, forgiving: “The most frequently repeated remark about it is that ‘there is no such word.’ There is such a word, however. It is still used primarily in speech, although it can be found from time to time in edited prose.”
I am not without regard for the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but my advice to those who do not want to be regarded as anything from uneducated to uncouth is to stick with the unadorned “regardless.” At least until most dictionaries agree that it’s a “real” word.Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.