Regardless whether Prudes will sneer

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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 forto and even at sometimes appear. The OED gives these examples:

1743   J. Bulkeley & J. Cummins Voy. to South-seas Pref. 16   Indolent and regardless for the Preservation of the People.
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).


  1. Carl said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 6:04 am

    But if prescriptivists are forward-looking and not backwards-looking, how will we be able to sneer at Fowler for proposing rules that no one had ever followed beforehand? It simply won't do to suggest he might have been progressive (good!) instead of conservative (bad!).

  2. mollymooly said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 7:29 am

    Garner could add a Stage 6, where the older form is so little used it may erroneously be considered a needless innovation.

  3. Theophylact said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
    Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

  4. Mar Rojo said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 11:36 am

    Is there a way of checking how popular or unpopular "regardless whether" is in S/standard spoken English?

    [(myl) In the LDC's database of English conversational telephone speech (26,151,602 words in 14,137 conversations), "regardless of whether" occurs 36 times, and "regardless whether" occurs twice:

    it'd be impossible to do anyway i mean people would buy them regardless whether it was uh legal or ill- illegal i think

    she doesn't want to be out by herself anywhere in Dallas regardless whether it's north Dallas or whatnot


  5. Douglas2 said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    You could get the blue line up out of the noise on the ngram by using the search regardless whether*10, regardless of whether

  6. Andy Averill said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

    It's even in Paradise Lost —

    Of brick, and of that stuff, they cast to build
    A city and tower, whose top may reach to Heaven;
    And get themselves a name, lest far dispersed
    In foreign lands, their memory be lost—
    Regardless whether good or evil fame.

    This is a little hard to parse, so I'm not sure which of Mark's categories it belongs in.

  7. Daniel Barkalow said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

    mollymooly: I think it would be more suitable for him to explain the stages in a time-symmetric fashion. For his purposes (letting people know what effect usage will have on their readers' impressions) the history doesn't matter. So a particular standard usage can go to Stage 4 when writing departments develop a distaste for it; Stage 3 when the elites unite against it; Stage 2 when the masses think it sounds wrong; and Stage 1 when dictionaries list it as "obsolete" as a matter of course. In particular, the audience whose judgements he's trying to describe generally don't know whether some usage was once standard or not, and will look down on you for your strange dialect no matter whether you picked it up from inner-city LA or 19th century Yale.

  8. Jeff Carney said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

    Andy Averill:

    I think it can go both ways, but I think Milton intends it the older way. A loose paraphrase: "They set about building a tower that might reach heaven. In doing so, they hoped to make a name for themselves. They didn't care (they were regardless) if the fame they earned in so doing was good or evil.

    The sentence-adjunct reading might go like this: "They didn't want their memory to be lost, regardless of whether that memory was good or evil."

    I favor the first because God is about to punish these guys, so Milton is emphasizing their arrogance.

  9. dw said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

    It is clear: we need to start a new peeve against "dangling regardless"!

  10. Jonathon said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

    In the research for my thesis (examining copy edited manuscripts to see which grammar and usage changes editors make), I've found that some of the most commonly applied rules are actually innovations (e.g. which>that). To a surprisingly large extent, copy editors are not protecting Standard English against change but introducing changes (though I think often unwittingly). Then people look at the corpora, say, "See? It's standard to use that as a restrictive and which as a nonrestrictive," and thus reinforce the prescription.

    [(myl) Can you point us to a copy of your thesis? It sounds very interesting.]

  11. Cy said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

    @Jonathon you have a brave disposition and strong constitution to research such a thing. Do you have any anger management strategies you could share with us?

  12. David Morris said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

    Why is this an issue? I'm not sure, but I think I (would) say/write 'regardless of WH', but I certainly wouldn't stigmatise 'regardless WH', and even accept it as normal and healthy variation. English quite comfortably accepts greater variation of forms than this.
    As an ESL teacher, currently teaching at intermediate level, I would be delighted if any student produced 'regardless', let alone 'regardless (of) WH'.

  13. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

    Prescriptivism isn't so much about conservatism in the larger sense. Rather, it's (yes, here I go again…) about a particular kind of protection of accumulated cultural capital that often (but not always) manifests as a conservatism. It can be innovative when an authority of prestige usage invents a rationale for preferring a new usage and deprecating an old one.

    What's important to prescriptivists is protecting their investment in having learned and habituating themselves to the usages prescribed by the usage mandarins (at increasing rarefied levels, from high school English teachers to stylebook writers to editors and esteemed members of the intelligentsia). It often is deeply conservative/traditionalist in a personal sense, not necessarily as much in the wider, cultural sense. Language reform is essentially progressive in spirit, of course, but it is the past reformers who have formed one important core of prescriptivism.

    That last sentence brings to my mind a larger and related issue that has been very relevant to my own life, and which (interestingly) was repeatedly mentioned in the comments to the WJS article discussed in the previous two LL posts: the western canon. As a progressive with the so-called "Great Books" education from St. John's College, I've always found it fascinating that all those books, many or most of which were progressive or shockingly radical in their own day, are revered by conservatives today as being deeply conservative. Naturally, I'm of the opinion that the essential lesson of the canon is progressive, even radicalizing. But conservatives, weirdly, seem to perceive a couple thousand years of contextually radical thought as, well, some sort of end-point, an eschaton of culture and intellectualism that must be preserved in amber. Not unlike, I suppose, the medievals who esteemed Plato and Galen and suppressed all dissent while somehow ignoring that Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth.

    In this very sense prescriptivists are subculturally conventional. Usually, but not always, those subcultures are those which have a relationship with prestige usage. In Bourdieuian terms, prestige language usage is most important to those who can't or don't pursue economic capital and therefore pursue cultural capital instead, most especially via the arts and/or academia. For them (us?!), prestige usage is among the primary means to display accumulated "wealth"; exhorting others to do the same is like a capitalist exhorting others to invest or a Calvinist exhorting others to hard work.

  14. Carl said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

    Keith makes a strong point. However, I would like to add this: a lot of times, the battle between prescriptivism and descriptivism just ends up being the battle between those with some cultural capital and those with even more. To stereotype, the prescriptivists are upper-middle class people who are proud of the education they got from their 6th grade teacher and look down on those greengrocers who did not receive such an education or who forgot what they learned (the Lynn Truss effect). There is also a large racial component to their snobbery, of course. The descriptivists on the other hand are like "old money" in the sense that they no longer strive to maintain their social capital. Because they feel secure in their place in the social hierarchy, they don't feel the need to denounce the lower classes. In fact, they are so secure that they can ostentatiously praise the practices of the lower classes (while still observing the rules themselves).

    As an American, when I look at the lists of U and non-U English, what strikes me is that the non-U has an element of striving and the U English is showing off how casual it is. "What" is U because it's blunter than the non-U "Pardon." As Wikipedia writes,

    the different vocabularies often can appear quite counter-intuitive: the middle classes prefer "fancy" or fashionable words, even neologisms and often euphemisms, in attempts to make themselves sound more refined, while the upper classes in many cases stick to the same plain and traditional words that the working classes also use, as, conscious of their status, they have no need to make themselves sound more refined.

    Back to the issue of prescriptivism and descriptivism, I feel like descriptivism becomes at times just another class marker: "How bourgeois to need someone like Strunk to tell you what everyone simply should know about writing anyway…" Of course, Strunk's rules were all most entirely made up. But because they were made up, by adhering to them (or at least making a show of trying to adhere to them), one can accumulate desperately wanted social capital.

  15. Carl said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

    Look at this recent post on Life Hacker:

    Almost none of these supposed "grammar gaffes" are actually about grammar (just the poorly worded advice to avoid the passive) and most of them are either wrong or misleading. But they all share a sense of striving. "Yes, Hack Your Life! Just Use Title Case Properly and All Will Be Yours!"

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

    Just to separate out another piece of prescriptivism, "irregardless of whether" is not as common as "regardless of whether," but shows (in n gram viewer) a quite similar pattern of growth over the course of the 20th century, while "irregardless whether," like "regardless whether," is so rare in recent decades it might as well just be the x-axis. So even the people who disregard the prescriptivist taboo about irregardless still use the "of" construction, presumably because it feels right to them, not because they give a damn what Garner and his ilk think of them.

  17. Jonathon said,

    December 10, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

    @Cy: I don't know about a brave disposition or strong constitution. I'm just a curious copy-editor-turned-linguist who's found some interesting data in copy-edited documents.

  18. John Walden said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 3:11 am

    There is definitely an insouciance about descriptivists, compared with the avid consumers of descriptivism. It's important to distinguish between suppliers and consumers. The latter do seem a bit arriviste, as Carl suggests above, and their insecurity is part of the need for "rules" – about dating, about when to wear white shoes, about what to serve with fish. If in doubt, ask an authority.

    There have been British language mavens in the past, but they are conspicuously absent today. Did they coincide with periods of greater social mobility?

  19. KathrynM said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 8:57 am

    Thank you, Keith M. Ellis and Carl; your exchange so exactly sums up my view of what is going on in language discussions I've participated in where it is possible to know something about the background of the participants. As a shame-faced member of the old-money English usage capitalists I've never quite dared to express the thought, but it is always in the back of my mind.

  20. Andy Averill said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    As for Bryan Garner's stages of language change (denial, bargaining, acceptance?), isn't this just that old bogeyman Historical Determinism à la Hegel and Marx? Seems to me if you want to assert that all language innovations follow the same pattern, you have to look for some underlying Cause, operating at a deeper level than just a whole bunch of individual decisions.

    And incidentally, I noticed in the post about the job market in linguistics the other day, that historical linguistics is one of the few areas where the demand for qualified specialists exceeds the supply. Sounds like there's a lot of work to be done in this field.

  21. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

    And incidentally, I noticed in the post about the job market in linguistics the other day, that historical linguistics is one of the few areas where the demand for qualified specialists exceeds the supply. Sounds like there's a lot of work to be done in this field.

    I thought about this and related things, too, when I read this post.

    What is the current linguistic thinking about language evolution vis a vis historical linguistics? The historical determinism that you describe are examples of non-scientific a priori reasoning, which it seems to me linguistics has in the past badly suffered from — how much has it recovered from this and become truly empirical? (I know I am showing my ignorance, but my impression has been that there's disparate scholarship — statistical work, accounts of language evolution in more narrow contexts. But I've not really heard about any coherent theoretical descriptions which are strongly empirically derived. That's probably just my own ignorance, I imagine.)

    What I noticed about this post is that language evolution itself is a matter of linguistics, or sociolinguistics, at most; but the Iptivist Wars are really a matter of sociology as it regards language and language as a (the?) primary cultural artifact.

    From my limited, lay understand, I'm strongly inclined to believe that almost nowhere does prescriptivism substantially influence language evolution (I do think that in certain narrow contexts and only within those narrow contexts, such as technical nomenclature, it probably does) and yet, of course, a great many people believe that prescribed usage is primary. For that matter, I recall an argument I had with a friend that I believe I reported here: he was adamant that the greatest portion of language acquisition came in the form of pedagogy, mostly parental. Common opinion seems strongly biased toward language as pure artifact, designed, taught, and imposed. So, because language is intimately tied to culture, and culture to sociopolitical organization, then it seems obvious to me that a great many cultural conflicts are waged under the aegis of language, mostly in ignorance of the fact that language is almost never an authoritarian imposition. That disconnect seems fascinating to me and ripe for investigation because it implies that some confounding factors are eliminated and therefore one might more easily be able to investigate prescriptivism sociologically as being a marker for other things of great interest.

  22. Andy Averill said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

    I should amend my point to say that obviously there can be underlying causes for language change — it doesn't have to be chaotic. But that's not the same as saying the pattern is always the same.

    And no doubt prescriptivism itself can be one of those causes. Take "the fact that", for example, which is right at the top of Strunk's taboo list. Is it a coincidence that, according to the Google ngram viewer, its frequency peaked right around the time his book was first made available to the general public (1935) and continued to decline up through the 1990's?

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