A Thing About Words

Posts From the Editors

August 8, 2013

We’ve Got Standards (Sub- and Non-)

Due to a popular video I did last year, I have inadvertently become a champion for irregardless. My mother, a stickler for proper English, was duly horrified: irregardless is flat-out wrong, she informed me. I jumped to its defense: irregardless is actually nonstandard.

 

English comes in a variety of styles and flavors. Most of us are aware of regional Englishes; regional variation is just one way to analyze words. Lexicographers can also analyze and categorize words by their “standardness.”

 

The idea of “standardness” is heavily influenced by a branch of linguistics called sociolinguistics. Sociolinguists often study how social variables, such as age, ethnicity, gender, education, economic standing, religion, and cultural norms or expectations, influence language use and language change. Out of sociolinguistics we get the three levels  of “standardness” that lexicographers typically use: standard, substandard, and nonstandard.

 

Standard English is the one that most English speakers learn in school. We give several definitions of Standard English, the most comprehensive one being “the English that with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well-established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood.” Newspaper articles and national broadcasts (and our blog posts) almost always use Standard English. Our dictionaries and other books are also written using Standard English. Most words defined in our dictionary are at home in Standard English; those that are not carry some sort of label, like slang, dialect, or Scottish.

 

Substandard English refers to any word choice, word form, pronunciation, grammatical construction, or idiom that exists within a particular group of language users, but not within what sociolinguists call the “prestige” group: the people with the highest education, upward mobility, social standing, and, well, prestige. To some people, substandard English sounds completely normal. They might say “I drunk the cup to the dregs,” or “He messed it up real bad“; they may say \LIE-berry\ for library; they might use irrevelant for irrelevant; they may ask, “How’s about we try it this way?” Within certain speech communities, these uses are perfectly fine. Perhaps some of them are native to your particular sociolect.

 

Nonstandard English is at the bottom of the dog pile: it constitutes the words, phrases, and grammatical constructions that do not conform in pronunciation, construction, idiom, or choice of word to the usage of educated native speakers of English. Nonstandard words are the ones that are commonly regarded as “wrong”: conversate, the four-syllable pronunciation of mischievous, and, yes, irregardless are all nonstandard. But if these words are “wrong,” why are they in the dictionary? (And why do I keep putting “wrong” in quotation marks?)

 

Conversate and irregardless are entered in our dictionaries for the same reason that transformer and be are entered in our dictionaries: they have substantial, widespread use. Irregardless is common in speech and even sneaks into edited prose with regularity, and in what most people would consider to be publications read and written by the prestige speakers of English (Wine Spectator, the New York Times, and Business Week, to name a few). Our correspondence files are also sprinkled with anecdotes suggesting that, among some speakers, irregardless may well be an intensive or absolute form of regardless. (The lexicographical jury is still out on that one.)

 

Some people would argue that including nonstandard words in a dictionary grants them legitimacy. However, these words already have legitimacy within their particular speech communities, and that is why I put “wrong” in quotation marks. That’s not to say that we have ignored the fact that most of us use (or attempt to use) Standard English: our usage paragraph at irregardless, for instance, is significantly longer than the definition itself and ends with “Use regardless instead.” But if your particular dialect or sociolect includes easy use of irregardless, then such use is not wrong within that specific context.

 

Those who disparage people who lapse into nonstandard English should be aware that these classifications are permeable. The construction as how, as in “Seeing as how no one is paying attention, I’ll stop,” has been derided in the past as being nonstandard, but it’s since passed into Standard English. And words that were once standard have now lapsed into being nonstandard: the past participle wrote, for instance.

 

English is like a river, always moving, always changing, and always making its own way in spite of everything we do to constrain it. Regard substandard and nonstandard words as different currents, if you will, instead of obstacles that impede the progress of English. You don’t have to swim with those currents, but you can’t say they aren’t part of the river.

Kory Stamper, associate editor, has worked on dozens of Merriam-Webster products. She writes, lectures on English, and is proud to have defined both "bodice ripper" and "apocalypse" for the Unabridged Dictionary. Follow @KoryStamper on Twitter.

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9 Responses to “We’ve Got Standards (Sub- and Non-)”

  1. Doug Flynn says:

    Irregardless, I will continue to say “regardless.”

  2. Michele Nelson says:

    G.W. Bush and a lot of people say “NUCULAR” for nuclear. What kind of English would that be? (I would say dyslextic English.)

  3. Douglas Lin says:

    When native speakers say that “Long time no see” is correct English, I would suggest its twin “People mountain people sea” would catch up with it! No joke, sincerely!

  4. Valetta says:

    Doesn’t irregardless mean to have regard?

  5. This article is profoundly interesting. Cognitive linguistics must not lose sight of its sociolinguistic aspects (i.e., not tend toward undue psychologism).

  6. Kory, that last paragraph is both lovely and communicative with nice imagery to help the idea take root in my grammar-fundamentalist mind. Thanks.

  7. W. Blum says:

    A cogent essay on descriptive and prescriptive linguistics. It seems that every third article by the editors discusses this dichotomy, leading me to believe it is a concept that the rabble find difficult. That is, if every dictionary reader understood it, the articles would not repeatedly defend descriptivism, to the weariness of regular readers.

  8. Kory Stamper says:

    Michele: Our entry for “nuclear” marks the “-kyu-lur” pronunciation with an obelus, which means it shows up occasionally among educated speakers, but is considered wrong or improper by other speakers. In the case of “nu-kyu-lur,” we’ve got evidence all over the place for its use, but it is still considered questionable. The usage paragraph at the entry notes:

    Although they attract the scorn of many, pronunciations ending in \-kyə-lər\, which perhaps arose in part because of the familiarity of words like particular, spectacular, and secular as contrasted with the relative rarity of English words ending in \-klē-ər\, have been found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, U.S. cabinet members, and U.S. presidents. While most common in the U.S., these pronunciations have also been heard from British and Canadian speakers. We suspect that most of the people who use them do so unconsciously.

    Emily has done a video on “nu-kyu-lur” and other “mispronunciations”; you can watch it here.

  9. N. Renich says:

    As an editor, I have often despaired that the English language is slipping away from our grasp. But reading your article has helped me to see that language does evolve, and with various ethnic groups entering our country, we will continue to see changes of pronunciation and usage and even spelling. But that’s OK. I also discovered I have always pronounced nuclear nu-kyu-lur, without my even realizing it!