Regarding Irregardless (and Appropriately Using Prefixes with Other Words)

If your writing looks professional, so do you.

  • Nancy Tuten

    20 February 2016

    Regarding Irregardless (and Appropriately Using Prefixes with Other Words)

    Advice on this word could be summed up in a single sentence: especially in professional contexts, avoid using irregardless.

    While it is certainly a commonly heard word, its usage is considered substandard, largely because the word is illogical. Regardless already means “without regard,” so when we add the negative prefix ir-, we create a double negative. In essence, we end up saying “not without regard,” which means, of course, “with regard”—the opposite of what we intend.

    Using the word irregardless is an easy mistake to make. After all, we say irrespective to mean “without respect to,” so it is natural to jump to the conclusion that irregardless means “without regard.” But the difference between these two words is the suffix –less, which itself makes regardless negative.

    The prefix in the English language that starts with the letter i and makes words negative is in-. It has three inflected forms: il-, im-, and ir-. The form il– is used with words starting with the letter l, as in illogical. The im– form prefixes words beginning with the letters b, m, or p: imbalance, immoral, and impractical, for example. The ir– inflection is used to prefix words that begin with the consonant rirreducible, irreconcilable, irresponsible, and so on. We use the basic prefix in– before all other letters, as in the words inconclusive and inapplicable.

    Complicating the issue of the meaning of negative prefixes is the fact that these common “in-” prefixes in English also mean in, into, within, toward, on, or upon—something quite the opposite of not.

    We thus have the adjective inflammable, which does not mean “not flammable” or “not capable of flaming” but in fact means “capable of bursting INTO flames.” The noun illegality means “something not legal,” but the noun illation means “the act of inferring” or (in its literal Latin meaning) “the act of bringing something IN.”

    Likewise, we have the verb irradiate and the noun irradiance, which do not mean “not radiating” or “not shining” but “radiating from WITHIN” or “shining ON.” The adjective impossible means “not possible,” but the verb imperil means “to put IN peril,” just as the verb impose means “to put UPON.”

    These examples are but a few of the many confusing issues surrounding the use of words in the English language. Perhaps there is only one reliable rule when it comes to word usage: purchase a good dictionary—such as Merriam-Webster’s or The New American Heritage Dictionary—and use it often.

    Webster’s, in fact, has this to say in response to the question, “Is irregardless a word?”

    Irregardless was popularized in dialectal American speech in the early 20th century. Its increasingly widespread spoken use called it to the attention of usage commentators as early as 1927. 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. Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance. Use regardless instead.

    Copyright 2002 Get It Write. Revised 2018.