Language Corner

Yes, ‘irregardless’ is a word. No, it’s not new.

July 17, 2020
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It’s hard to believe that, in the year 2020, we are still arguing over whether “irregardless” is a word. It is. Not a good one, necessarily, but a word. 

In late June, Christine Rousselle, a DC correspondent for the Catholic News Agency, tweeted about pet peeves and got a response:

The next day, Wade Keller, a journalist who covers wrestling, tweeted:

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The real catalyst, though, seemed to come on July 1, when @iowahawkblog apparently discovered “irregardless” in the dictionary, and got a response from the people who put it there, Merriam-Webster:

The floodgates opened, with objectors saying that people who used “irregardless” ranged from the merely ignorant to Trump supporters to people intent on destroying society as we know it. Even Jamie Lee Curtis complained:

The Guardian and NPR weighed in, as did the fact-checking site Snopes.

Well. A few things:

“Irregardless” was not just added to the dictionary.

As Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster, tweeted in response to Chelsea Handler’s complaint, “irregardless” has “Been sitting right there in @MerriamWebster dictionaries, between ‘irrefutably’ and ‘irregeneracy,’ since 1934.” (Sokolowski’s Twitter thread goes through all the reasons it’s there, as well as the objections and refutations to them.)

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of “irregardless” to 1912, though a similar word, “unregardless,” goes back well into the nineteenth century. (The OED says “irregardless” is “Chiefly North American” and “nonstandard or humorous use.”) People have been arguing over it since.

One objection to “irregardless” is that we already have a word that means the same thing—“regardless”—so why do we need another? However, English is full of those words, like “incent” for “incentivize,” itself a fancy word for “motivate.” And we have synonyms, which are just like another word, so why do we need those?

Another objection is that “irregardless” is illogical, since adding the “ir-” prefix repeats the “-less” suffix. But English has many illogical formations, like “in/flammable.” In addition, many of our idioms are illogical: “I could care less,” instead of the logical “I couldn’t care less,” is at the top of many people’s list of “you shouldn’t use” expressions.

Poor Merriam-Webster has come under heavy fire for enabling “irregardless,” though it manages to maintain a sense of humor about it. But dictionaries do not create language. People do. Dictionaries merely reflect the way people are using words. If you want to blame anyone for “irregardless” being in the dictionary, look around you. You’ll have plenty of targets, unaware though they may be.

Keep in mind that, since we write for journalists, our advice is aimed at them. Would a journalist write “ain’t”? That’s in the dictionary, so why not? Like “irregardless,” “ain’t” is considered nonstandard English. Many people write “alright” instead of “all right.” That’s in the dictionary, too, not even as “nonstandard,” though a usage note calls it “informal.” Should they all be banished from journalism?

It all comes down to audience and intent. Many publications aim for a more formal tone, so those writers might want to eschew “nonstandard” and “disputed” usages. But if the publication aims for a more informal, down-to-earth tone, let “irregardless,” “ain’t,” “alright,” and the like fly, especially in lighter contexts. Literally no one will misunderstand.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.