On both sides of the War of the Iptivists, many people seem to believe that opinions about linguistic usage reflect attitudes towards innovation. The story goes like this: A new word, a new form, or a new construction is invented; at first, most people reject the innovation and deprecate the innovators; but the innovation spreads all the same; eventually it becomes normal and accepted, and no one even remembers that there was a problem. While this process is underway, one side supports tradition, insists on standards, and mutters about Kids Today; the other side supports innovation, points out that many of the Best People Are Doing It, and mutters about peevish old snoots.
Historical processes of that kind certainly do happen — see "In this day of slack style…", 9/2/2012, for a couple of examples. But overall, as an explanation of attitudes towards linguistic variation, this story is a failure. Usage peeving, though usually claiming to protect traditional usage, in fact aims to eliminate older forms at least as often as it tries to hold the line against newer ones. We've documented many examples of this over the years — see "At a loss for lexicons" (2/9/2004), "'Singular they': God said it, I believe it, that settles it" (9/13/2006), "Hot Dryden-on-Jonson action" (5/1/2007), "Preaching the incontrovertible to the unconvertible" (12/6/2012).
In the third edition of Garner's Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner has adopted a form of the linguistic rags-to-riches story as the basis of his five-step "Language-Change Index", whose "purpose is to measure how widely accepted various linguistic innovations have become". And unfortunately, he sometimes applies this scale to characterize the status of cases where the innovation-to-acceptance history just doesn't apply.
As I noted in "Regardless (of) whether" (12/7/2012), Garner assigns "regardless whether" to Stage 2 of the Language-Change Index:
Stage 2 (“widely shunned”): The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage (e.g.: *”pour over books” for “pore over books”).
It's certainly true that "regardless of whether" is strongly preferred to "regardless whether", as a statistical matter, in current standard usage in the U.S. Thus in the New York Times' index from 01/01/2000 to the present, "regardless whether" has just 64 hits (mostly in quotations and in readers' comments), compared to 52,800 for "regardless of whether".
But I feel that it's far too strong to say that "regardless whether" is now "unacceptable in standard usage". One reason is that "regardless of whether" is pretty clearly the innovation, whose striking increase in frequency began no more than a century ago. As observed in Saturday's post, the Google Books ngram corpus suggests this:
The frequency in the COHA corpus shows a similar picture:
And a search of Literature Online supports the same conclusion. LION has 12 instances of "regardless whether", from publications dated 1674, 1674, 1692, 1767, 1808, 1819, 1851, 1852, 1860, 1864, 1868, and 1987. The mean date is 1810, and the median is 1835.
The older examples are hardly substandard — thus some lines from Evan Lloyd's "Conversation", 1767:
If Tetonilla , more to catch the Eye,
Short prunes the Stays, nor lets them rise too high,
Tell us, grave Sir—wherein the mighty Harm
To hint of Drums , where Love beats his Alarm;
Or if, regardless whether Prudes will sneer,
All Gauze and Fig-Leaf, Nivea shou'd appear;
What if some Rake, with Wit and Passion big,
Should praise the Fig-Leaf , and request the Fig ?
Or a passage from the Yale Review in 1852:
Professedly christian men look upon the engagement between a church and its pastor as being like that between a farmer and his hired man, or the merchant and his clerk, in which the aim is to get the required work at the lowest possible cost, regardless whether the one performing it can so afford it or not.
Or, for that matter, this sentence from a (non-literary) 2002 book:
Regardless whether many or few voters go to the polls, competitive elections are seen as the practical implementation of the concept of popular sovereignty.
In comparison, Literature Online has 20 instances of "regardless of whether", from publications dated 1966, 1974, 1975, 1975, 1978, 1985, 1987, 1987, 1992, 1994, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2005, 2009. In this case the mean is 1991, and the median is 1994.
Looking further into this historical change, we find another interesting fact: in some of the phrases under consideration, the OED believes that regardless has undergone a shift from adjective to (sentence) adverb, apparently reflecting grammaticization of its widespread use as a "dangling modifier". Certainly "regardless of whether S", as a floating adjunct, is a relatively recent innovation or at least a recent fad — but for some reason, the gods of grammatical peeving have given this (arguably incorrect or at least impolite) innovation a pass.
As its structure suggests, regardless is originally an adjective, which the OED glosses as "Failing to pay due regard; heedless, indifferent, careless" — compare helpless, hopeless, careless, worthless, eyeless, and so on. It can be used as a nominal modifier — or at least it could:
1601 R. Yarington Two Lamentable Trag. F ij b, Grim imperious death, Reguardlesse instrument of cruell fate.
1868 J. G. Whittier Among Hills Prel. 78 Treading the May-flowers with regardless feet.
1953 R. Lehmann Echoing Grove (1958) 22 He had had a regardless way with money in the first years.
And it also often appears in predicate position:
1578 A. Golding tr. Seneca Conc. Benefyting iv. iv. f. 47v, Surely God dooth no good turnes at all, but is carelesse and regardlesse of vs; and being quyte giuen from the world, buzieth himself about other matters.
1591 Spenser Muiopotmos in Complaints sig. X, He likest is to fall into mischaunce, That is regardles of his gouernaunce.
1723 B. Mandeville Fable Bees (ed. 2) i. 305 Reprobate Parents that take Ill Courses and are regardless of their Children.
1948 Times 23 July 6/4 Various people concerned were..mindful of their unfortunate pre-war experience of the film industry and so were regardless of the national interest.
In predicative uses, a nominal argument — the thing someone is failing to pay due regard to — usually appears in an of-phrase, as in the examples above, though for, to and even at sometimes appear. The OED gives these examples:
1756 W. Toldervy Hist. Two Orphans IV. 153 Would..the soldier be regardless at the thundering of cannon?
And a quick scan of books and news sources turns up others:
This is regardless to the question if a module is accessing a particular signal or not.
The result of equation (5) indicates that pump head is regardless to suction head Hi.
But she is regardless to all that said to her about it.
Adjectival regardless can also take clausal complements with that. (In what follows, I've indicated the date of publication, in order to make it clear that these structure are neither recent innovations nor entirely obsolete):
(1833) Though he has frequently felt hunger, yet he is regardless that his continual slothfulness must necessarily plunge him into more sufferings.
(2001) This is regardless that the two objects they reference are of the same length.
WH complements are even commoner:
(1731) If you now be left to yourselves, if God keep silence, and judgment be not speedily executed, it is not because God is regardless how you live, and how you behave yourselves.
(1788) This […] is a situation sufficient to alarm any but the profligate mind, which makes no account of sin, and is regardless how much guilt it incurs, or how great mischief it works.
(1832) I sought the light of truth, and was regardless whose hand held the lamp.
(1834) Considered in themselves, of how little importance are the first words of infants: but, who despises their first words, and is regardless whether they be spoken or not?
(1807) … thus a persuasive faith, which is such that he is regardless whether a thing be true or false, provided he can gain credit thereby.
And because WH-clauses can serve as noun phrases, we can also find predicative uses in structures like "BE regardless of WH-S":
(1846) The conversation was here interrupted by a call from the beach, which attracted Harry's attention, after having been so much engrossed during the disclosures of Stebbins, as to be quite regardless of what was going on about him.
(1853) In our cities now, and even in an ordinary dwelling-house, men are surrounded by prodigies of mechanic art, and cannot submit to use these, regardless of how they are produced, as a horse is regardless of how the corn falls into his manger.
So far, all the examples have been pre-nominal modifiers ("a regardless way with money") or predicate phrases ("God is regardless how you live"). But floating modifier-phrases headed by regardless have always been common, and may occur with all sorts of complements:
(1692) For thee, great Name, what will not Mortals dare? / For thee alike the Good and Impious strive, / Certain to raise to raise a durable, / Regardless whether good or evil, Fame:
(1719) I jump'd up, and, regardless of Danger, I went out as soon as I could get my Cloaths on, thro' my little Grove, which (by the Way) was by this Time grown to be a very thick Wood.
(1753) Rather than creep up slowly, a posteriori, to a little general knowledge, they soar at once as far, and as high, as imagination can carry them. From thence they descend again, armed with systems and arguments a priori; and, regardless how these agree, or clash with the phaenomena of nature, they impose them on mankind.
(1789) … Your very wish not to be thought spreading the "prejudices of a dissenter from the established church," marks what you are, and that your reforming zeal has too much of the leaven of old John Knox, who fired the convent that Ihe rooks might fly away, regardless whether they were to starve or live on the plunder of the publick.
(1791) The reason is this: The Baron to whom the fief belongs, sucks, as it were, the very blood of his vassals: loaded with his booty, he eagerly repairs to the capital to live in splendour, regardless whether the poor labourer dies of hunger.
(1807) We have seen that the Saxon terminations, regardless of harmony, always leave the accent where they found it, let the adventitious syllables be ever so numerous.
(1816) It is thus in all barbarous countries, where the men throw all the laborious duties of life upon the women ; and, regardless of beauty, put the softer sex to those employments that must effectually destroy it.
(1831) But he who is ignorantly tenacious of ancient customs, fixes his sowing season to a month or day, regardless whether or not the earth is well prepared.
(1833) His professed Representatives, regardless of the perishing state of millions around you, nay, regardless of the perishing state of those even who compose your household, neglect to address them, and refuse to learn their language.
(1867) The rule says: "If a player wishes to call the planter he can do so, regardless of whether he had or had not knocked down pins on his last stroke."
(1899) But the Trust has for some time been filling orders from all buyers It deemed desirable customers regardless of whether such customers were jobbers or retailers.
These floating adjuncts often become "danglers", not connected to the nearest suitable noun phrase subject, or even to any suitable noun phrase at all. These dangling regardlesses have become especially common over the past century or so, and this has led the OED to consider regardless to have developed an alternative entry as an adverb, glossed as "Without taking account of, irrespective of. Also: (with interrogative clause) without regard to, irrespective of".
Thus in this 1823 example, the clothes are neither running nor regardless:
(1823) Running, regardless of hills or dales, or woods or commons, the clothes which they had on became entangled in the thorny bushes, and were partly torn and partly detained.
Dangling regardless, rare in the 19th century and before, becomes the norm in recent decades:
(1997) If a contractor manufactured goods at its plant in St. Louis for delivery in Chicago, employees who transported the goods were carrying out the contract, regardless whether the contractor could have made the goods locally at its plant in Chicago.
(2002) Regardless whether many or few voters go to the polls, competitive elections are seen as the practical implementation of the concept of popular sovereignty.
(2006) Regardless of who pulled the trigger on Richard Eugene Hickock's shotgun, both men are equally guilty.
(2011) The wedge between the buyers' price and the sellers' price is the same, regardless of whether the tax is levied on buyers or sellers.
(2012) Auscultated wheezing Is seldom generated in the lower airways, regardless of the disease process.
So three things have happened, more or less in synchrony:
(1) The use of regardless as a prenominal modifier or a predicate adjective, never very common, has decreased in frequency;
(2) The use of regardless-phrases as dangling adjuncts or sentence adverbials has increased markedly in frequency;
(3) The frequency of "regardless of WH-S" has increased markedly relative to "regardless WH-S".
Are these three things connected? I'm not sure. But I'm quite certain that the status of "regardless whether" is NOT that it has "[spread] to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage".
Update — Brett Reynolds points out that
Although the OED takes regardless to have developed an adverbial form, under the CGEL framework, it would be a preposition (see p. 610) because it takes a complement (see p. 617).