Recently, I’ve been following an internet meme that suggests one should not consider a partner whose language usage includes nonstandard diction. In this case, the word in question happens to be irregardless – clearly not acceptable in formal speech or written work, yet often used informally. The meme implies that a potential date must be able to use irregardless correctly in a sentence. Ironically, to a purist, this would mean never using the word at all, because it hasn’t been accepted into the nonstandard English lexicon. This might happen eventually but it hasn’t yet done so. Irregardless may appear in dictionaries but that doesn’t confer acceptability – merely acknowledgment. It IS a word, just not an especially good one.
Regardless of other criteria, the prospective mate must be able to use – or avoid – this word before he or she will be deemed worthy of notice. 🙂 The meme is being widely circulated. Clearly, it has pounded a significant nail on the head. Debates over usage and other issues of syntax, mechanics and vocabulary can generate both friction and heat. I’ve refrained from commenting. Personal insults aren’t my thing. It’s astonishing how nasty some grammar mavens can become! Life’s too short – trite but accurate.
However, there comes a point at which one must take a stand. The meme has shown up once again on my feed. I’ve contained the urge to enter the comments fray on Facebook – but this isn’t Facebook. It’s my own personal space. The time to take a stand is now.
I’m an English teacher. I’ve been following these irregardless threads – and, indeed, others sharing the theme of language-shaming – with considerable interest despite my refusal to be drawn into them. That having been said, I’ve learned through many years’ experience that correct English usage and colloquial or nonstandard English usage can function equally well for communication. It depends on a combination of social context and personal background. When I was marking NS provincial English exams, part of our mandate was to determine whether “communication remain[ed] clear” and if this were the case, we were instructed to assign at least a minimal pass to that portion of the marking scheme.
Having read student essays that were brilliantly-written, with a veritable showcase of fancy language – correctly and effectively used – I know from grammar. Still, some of those essays lacked any power to persuade the reader of anything. There was simply no emotional or intellectual connection. On the other hand, I’ve encountered papers that were liberally sprinkled with spelling and syntactical errors, yet evoked a significant and often-visceral response. One can be fluent but dull. One can be awkward but exciting. The key is the writer’s, or speaker’s, ability to slice to the bone and force an audience to feel that cut. Therefore, it follows that a powerful argument is often described as incisive. Do we pause to red-circle every mistake along the way?
I have discovered – although I’ve known this since childhood, so perhaps reaffirmed is a better choice – that people whose speech includes grammatical boo-boos can be highly intelligent, insightful and imaginative. They can also be well-educated but not necessarily attentive to linguistics. I’ve met a fair number of scientists and several doctors whose casual-conversation skills were, to put it mildly, deficient. I’ve also chatted with grade-ten dropouts who could have put a PhD candidate to shame when it came to clear, cogent and creative speech.
Some folks, however, have never been given much of an opportunity to master the niceties of mechanics, except in the local garage. More than a few are bicultural and may have grown up speaking Frenglish (or Spanglish, or whatever else combines two different tongues). This combination incorporates some peculiar diction choices. I find their speech quirky and colourful. Yet it is easily understood. Then there are those who struggle with dyslexia or some other speech/language disability. Once we begin to dismiss a human being’s worthiness on the basis of grammatical perfection – even in fun! – we gradually lose the capacity to accept variation. One of my most memorable students, from many years ago, was so severely dyslexic that he required transcription of everything he wanted to write. He could dictate entire essays during exams, organized and developed in his head, on the spot! He could discuss Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Harper Lee and Hemingway with obvious awareness of their contributions to art and literature. He was probably one of the brightest young men I’ve ever taught.
I believe he’s a landscape architect now. I’ve lost track of him but that was his goal and I see no reason why he wouldn’t have achieved it. Universities and colleges have come to the realization that certain students may require support during their studies. This support is being provided. The onus remains with the student, however, in terms of mastering course material and producing work of merit. Otherwise, capable but not-necessarily-routine thinkers would be set aside. The losses would be ours as well as theirs.
Poets tend toward verbal oddities as well. We coin words; we shift parts-of-speech. We use adjectives as nouns and nouns as verbs. We’re not above constructing sentence fragments, reversing syntax or playing fast and loose with pretty much every grammatical rule. Most of us do operate from a broad knowledge base when it comes to language. That doesn’t stop us from choosing whatever wonky devices will best serve our purposes.
Still, there exist certain intellectuals to whom the slightest slip in the writing process is anathema. There are others who seek to understand the individual behind the words. If I were in the “dating market”, I’d look for a compassionate man whose powers of observation are keen and whose mind embraces a vast variety of information. Whether or not he uses irregardless is secondary to his character and behaviour. Whether or not he is educated in a formal sense, he’ll impress me if he’s been educated in the lessons of empathy, loyalty, determination and kindness.
(Ir)regardless of my own preference, we will each follow our own roads through the language – if not the date-bait – landscape. May each of our journeys bring its desired reward.