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With the passion of a thousand suns do grammarians hate irregardless. Grammar forums are rife with rage at its continued existence. It’s called an “evil word“, “a corruption, an abomination“. Richard Lederer wrote, “Of all the misuses that slither through the English language, irregardless will get you into the hottest of water.” You can even buy a T-shirt advertising your low opinion of irregardless.

The question isn’t whether or not irregardless is a word, because that’s such an ill-defined question. Of course it’s a word, as it’s a string of letters with a fairly well-agreed-upon intended meaning, a string that is standardly separated from other words in a sentence by spaces. But asking if it’s a word isn’t the question anyone’s interested in; when people ask if irregardless is a word, they really mean to ask if irregardless is a valid and well-accepted component of Standard English. And on that front, as with many words that I use, such as jaggerbush or slippy, the answer is no, it’s definitely non-standard. The reason why is obvious; it’s got a morphological double negative, with the negative prefix ir- and the negative suffix -less. As a result, it doesn’t fit the (singularly negative) meaning it’s intended to convey.

Irregardless appears to have arisen as a blend of the two standard words irrespective and regardless, and it’s not new. The American Dialect Dictionary antedates it to 1912. Thanks to Google Books, I can even offer a few unconfirmed earlier occurrences for irregardless:

(1) “[…] B. Gosse Esq., of London, who gave indiscriminately to every object irregardless of worthiness, and disliked to destroy anything.”
[Nature’s Revelations of Character, by Joseph Simms, MD, 1873]

(2) “Individually, at least, I am in favor of the education of whole country, irregardless of race, color, or previous condition.”
[Transcript of the Congressional Testimony of William H. Hill, December 28, 1876]

(3) “[…] an agreement amongst everybody who handles coal in the New England cities to protect themselves irregardless of the situation and irregardless of the demands of the people […]”
[Court Proceedings from 1906]

Honestly, these early attestations surprised me. I’d figured, as I assume most people do, that irregardless was a fairly new phenomenon. I was wrong; not only is irregardless over a century old, but it’s even appeared in older formal writing, such as the official text of the U.K. Contagious Disease Act (Horned Cattle) of 1880. As I found out while trawling the Oxford English Dictionary, I oughtn’t to have been so surprised by the long pedigree. In fact, irregardless would have fit in just fine in the 16th and 17th centuries:

[un-] is sometimes redundantly prefixed to adjectives ending in -less. […] The type, however, chiefly belongs to the later 16th and 17th centuries; among the instance from that period are unboundless, uncomfortless, undauntless […]”

Note that for these double negative words, like with irregardless, the intended meaning is negative. It might sound crazy that this could ever have been a common and productive pattern, but here’s an example from a 1570 poem:

Who seeking Christ to kill, the King of everlasting life,
Destroyed the infants young, a beast unmerciless,”

How about that? I suppose it’s not overly surprising that this is the case; the 16th and 17th centuries were a time when double negatives were still being used to indicate negation. Shakespeare, who wrote in this period, used them as negatives. And unmerciless and irregardless are just instances of double negatives within a word.

Even knowing all that, it’s still kind of surprising to me that irregardless is isn’t so much an ill-formed word as it is a latecomer who missed its chance by a few centuries. That doesn’t mean I’d advise using irregardless; far too much has changed in the language since 1570 for irregardless to be valid in Modern English. It’s just neat that something that’s now so anathema used to be acceptable.

Warning: there is nothing in this post about grammar. Nothing at all. It is just my current opinion on health care reform, which I have felt rather strongly about for quite a while. As with my previously posted opinions on Proposition 8, I don’t expect this piece will change your opinion drastically. Don’t bother reading it if you think it will skew your opinion of me or prevent you from enjoying the site in the future. If you’re interested, my thoughts are below the fold.

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Have you ever had to confront a dirty truth about one of your childhood heroes?  I have.  I used to worship Woodrow Wilson.  My elementary and high school history books treated him like a brainiac whose sole problem was his aloofness.  He’d have a great idea, like the League of Nations, or the Fourteen Points, or a less-punitive Treaty of Versailles, but then the lunkheads in Congress — I’m looking at you, Henry Cabot Lodge — would vote him down, seemingly because they were jealous of how smart and great he was.

I graduated from high school and went on to college at Wilson’s alma mater, excited about all the stuff on campus named for him or otherwise honoring him.  And then, during my junior year, I started reading about how Wilson was actually a pretty heavy-duty racist, even for his time. (This came from reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, one of the inspirations for this blog.)  It was a crushing blow, and revealed to me that, even though I thought I had matured beyond hero worship, hero worship isn’t something you ever really outgrow.

“Weird Al” Yankovic is another of my boyhood heroes.  My best friend in elementary school and I listened to Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day album incessantly throughout much of 1996 and 1997. I still get the song “Mr. Popeil” stuck in my head from time to time, and the lyrics to “Amish Paradise” are etched into my brain.   Thus it is with a profound sense of sadness and tarnished dreams that I inform you that even Weird Al can be wrong — though not nearly so badly so as Wilson.  Weird Al posted a video on Twitter in which he stops a car because he sees a road sign reading

You might be able to predict what happens next: Weird Al gets out of the car, walks over to the sign, and attaches a Post-It with “LY” written on it.  Turning to the camera, he says “Grammar, people! C’mon!”

This may have contributed to the appearance of “g-r-a-m-m-a-r” as one of the top trending topics on Twitter. (It appeared with the dashes between the letters on Twitter; I’m not spelling it out or anything.)  Twitter discussions of grammar, with or without dashes, are probably something best avoided, so I’m a little dismayed at what Weird Al has wrought.  But more than anything else, I am sorry to say that Weird Al is incorrect.  There is nothing wrong with the phrase drive slow.

Whoa, there!  Perhaps you’re wondering if I’ve gone round the bend.  There’s nothing wrong with drive slow?  Yes, you read that right.  Slow is what’s known as a flat adverb, one that lacks an -ly suffix and therefore looks the same as an adjective.  Another flat adverb is right, which I used in the phrase read that right a few sentences ago.  But I think my favorite example of a flat adverb is fast, because it’s uncontroversially an adverb, and it has no -ly version:

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! poster
(1a) Varla insists on driving fast.
(1b) *Varla insists on driving fastly.

(2a) Linda prefers to drive slow.
(2b) Linda prefers to drive slowly.

(The * means the sentence is ungrammatical.) According to the Oxford English Dictionary, adverbial slow appeared around 1500 and has stuck around the language ever since. Adverbial fast and right are even older, dating back to 1205 and 950 respectively, so it’s clear that flat adverbs like slow have a long pedigree.

Not only that, but the pedigree is distinguished as well. Thackeray includes the line “[…] we drove very slow for the last two stages on the road […]” in his 1848 classic Vanity Fair. Even Shakespeare himself would smile upon the road sign; he used adverbial slow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “[…] but O, methinks, how slow / This old moon wanes!”

And, if you’re the sort who only accepts grammar if some authority tells you it’s the case, you’ll be interested to hear that The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Usage and Abusage, and The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style all accept adverbial slow in the context of a road sign. (Fowler’s does so begrudgingly, the others openly.)

So, no, idol-of-my-youth and all your re-tweeters, the sign didn’t need corrected. Your ire is misplaced. The same is true for Dr. Pepper’s slogan “drink it slow”. (It is worth noting, though, that adverbial slow can only follow the verb; it usually can’t be an adverb if it precedes the verb. I slow drove down the street, for instance, is wrong.)

Summary: It’s fine to use slow as an adverb; it is part of a class of words that can be either adjectives or adverbs, and has been for 500 years. Shakespeare, Milton, and Thackeray all used adverbial slow, so it’s even fine with the literary set and style manuals

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a quick post asking for your opinions on Philip Corbett’s contention that may and might both express possibility, but that might is used when the possibility is less likely. For example, the work in (1a) is more likely to get done than in (1b):

(1a) If I can distract the kittens, I may be able to get my work done.
(1b) If I can distract the kittens, I might be able to get my work done.

I had never heard this before, and I didn’t find it to be the case in my own usages, so I posed the question to you all, and you didn’t disappoint. Nor did you agree. Three commenters concurred with Corbett about the difference, with may being more probable than might. One felt that the difference was one of involvement, that might suggests the subject is somehow more involved in the action than may. Two thought that the difference was one of formality, but one thought that may was more formal and the other thought it was less. And at least three agreed with me that there wasn’t any clear difference.

I think Bob Hale nailed it in his comment when he wrote

“My usage of “may” and “might” probably doesn’t correspond exactly to your usage of “may” and “might” or to anyone else’s. I don’t think it’s consistent for an individual and it certainly isn’t consistent between individuals.”

It is worth noting that no one felt that might was more probable than may, so maybe there is a grain of truth to Corbett’s contention, but that grain is drowned out by the overwhelming muddle.

Summary: may and might should be regarded as essentially interchangeable, because different people don’t agree on what the difference between them would be.

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About The Blog

A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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