Language help for everyone, not just lawyers

In his latest book, The Sense of Style — described by one columnist as “a modern version of Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, but one based on linguistics and updated for the 21st century” — Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker explores the most common words and phrases that people stumble over.

My favorite in the list (emphasis and brackets in original):

Irregardless is not a word but a portmanteau of regardless and irrespective. [Note: Pinker acknowledges that certain schools of thought regard “irregardless” as simply non-standard, but he insists it should not even be granted that.]

Correct: Regardless of how you feel, it’s objectively the wrong decision. / Everyone gets a vote, irrespective of their position.

This is my favorite for two reasons.

First, in a list of misconceptions about the correct use of some very common words, use of the word “portmanteau” is hilarious.  I confess I had to look it up. If someone had thrown that word at me without any context, I would have guessed it is a wine.

Second, I agree with Pinker that “irregardless” should not be “granted” the status of non-standard usage. The word drives me crazy.

But that horse has already left the barn. A few years ago, I heard on the radio that dictionaries add new words every year. In itself, that is not surprising. Often, the added words are recently coined slang terms that have gained widespread usage, such as photobomb. Such words have probably been defined in the Urban Dictionary for years before they finally make it to a mainstream dictionary. But the reason this was covered in the radio news was because the word “irregardless” was added by a mainstream dictionary that year, with a full acknowledgment that its normal usage was grammatically incorrect, and that it was nonetheless added because its misuse was so widespread. It seems that if a word is used incorrectly often enough and long enough, it earns dictionary status.

This is how language evolves, I suppose. But if English keeps evolving this way, no one is going to understand what anybody else is saying.

My second favorite on the list:

Literally means in actual fact and does not mean figuratively.

Correct: I didn’t mean for you to literally run over here. / I’d rather die than listen to another one of his lectures — figuratively speaking, of course!

Misuse of the word “literally” in place of “figuratively,” like any use of “irregardless,” drives me crazy — figuratively, of course. If it bothers you as much as it bothers me, you can express that through t-shirts. There seem to be enough t-shirts on the topic to wear a different design every day of the week. Literally.

You can see more of the list at Business Insider.