Merriam-Webster Goes All in for Relativism

Changing the rules of the English language
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There was a recent kerfuffle with the use of the incorrect word “irregardless.” A cable news talking head used the malapropism on a morning news program, Merriam-Webster weighed in, and a social media fight ensued. Underneath the skirmish are two competing theories of language, and Merriam Webster showed that they fall on the progressive, deconstructionist side of this debate.

“Irregardless” was used by Nicole Wallace on MSNBC: 

“I know from your view and your inside knowledge of the DOJ that they are not oblivious to this but they do what they do irregardless of the political wins, but tell me what kind of toll the rhetoric of the riot is taking on this investigation and these professionals?”

Several viewers tweeted that this was incorrect, which is when Merriam-Webster stepped in to respond, calling irregardless not incorrect but “nonstandard.” In reality, “irregardless” is quite wrong: The assimilated prefix “ir” comes from “in,” meaning in this case “not.” The suffix “less” means “without.” “Regardless,” then, means in a sense, “without regard.” “Irregardless” can be thought of as a double negative within one word: “not without regard.” It’s an almost nonsensical word that means the exact opposite meaning of what Wallace implied in its use.

There really is something wrong with Merriam-Webster: Merriam-Webster does not like the idea of calling bad grammar “wrong;” instead, only that it “might want to be avoided.”

Once Merriam-Webster fallaciously bestowed legitimacy on “irregardless,” the response to their tweet was mostly embarrassing: People deferred to them by virtue of the fact that “the dictionary said it.”  They fail to realize that the dictionary is currently helmed by all-too-fallible human beings with some fairly leftist views on grammar, in the case of Merriam-Webster and its editors.  

Merriam-Webster actually enjoys irritating people who have traditional, common sense notions of right and wrong in grammar. The integrity of the English language does not particularly matter to them. They prefer a relativistic approach to language and grammar. They adopt the same progressive approach to language that has captured so many other fields of study. Why shouldn’t the dictionary be next to fall?

Indeed, the general public’s response to Merriam-Webster is depressing.  Behold how most of humanity will take the word of any authority figure at face value. How little we question their premises!  

This bitter “irregardless” debate hinges on a conception of a prescriptivist approach to grammar versus a descriptivist. These are the terms that are bandied about with no little amount of pride by these online intellectuals; how they savor such terminology.  Below is an incisive description of the two terms: 

“The prescriptivist says words have fixed definitions, and using them in ways that aren’t in the dictionary is misuse. The descriptivist says that words mean whatever people choose them to mean.”

There is an ought to be a healthy tug and pull between these two conceptions of language. Words and grammar do indeed change over time. Yet the so-called descriptivists take this to mean that nothing is ever wrong in language; however people choose to use a word is “correct.”  It is a specious logic, if it can be called logic at all. Taken to its logical conclusion, we would not even understand each other if we were all pure descriptivists. Is it really so reactionary to ask that we communicate with each other with a shared understanding of the rules of English? 

The subtext here is a dislike of authority and hierarchy. Merriam-Webster is on the left wing when it comes to language and grammar; their editors make their political feelings clear enough. Proper language matters and we should argue so even if, ironically, a famous dictionary asserts otherwise. 
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Michael Machera
Michael Machera is a writer and teacher living in Dallas, TX.  He blogs at http://www.michaelmacherablog.com. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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