I don’t like to think of myself as the type to aggressively correct grammatical errors in someone’s speech. After all, I’m equally culpable of an excessive reliance on “like,” and the number of times I’ve ended my sentences with “um, so, yeah” is too high for me to count. The other day, however, a friend began a diatribe with “irregardless,” and I couldn’t hold my tongue.
The grammar atrocity that is “irregardless” represents an overgeneralization about negative prefixes such as “in,” “ir,” “un,” — you catch my drift. The word my friend was searching for was “regardless,” but despite her well-meaning intention, “irregardless” is not a word.
It made me start to think about how disorderly the English language is about its negatives. When I was in middle school, I read E. Lockhart’s “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Bates,” and her protagonist’s discussion of what she terms neglected positives, imaginary neglected positives and false positives intrigued me.
Neglected positives are words in which the use of the negative form is far more prevalent — take, for example, maculate. The Catholic Church loves the negative of this word (Immaculate Conception churches and hospital abound), and we have no trouble describing a room or a white dress as immaculate. But its positive, maculate, is rarely used.
Imaginary neglected positives, on the other hand, are not just infrequently used words — they aren’t words at all. Not only are they not accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary, they’re not even slang, because they’re not used outside of their placement within the negative word. Petuous, the negative of impetuous (which would mean something along the lines of calm or collected), and ept, the negative of inept — which someone tried to use on a game of Bananagrams the other day, so maybe it’s becoming a thing! — are such examples.
Finally, we reach the category of false neglected positives, which are the cause of one of my least favorite grammatical mistakes. False neglected positives are words that seem like they should mean the opposite of each other. Due, however, to some quirk of English, their meaning is one and the same. Invaluable and valuable, both words referring to objects or ideas of value, are frequently confused. Other pairs of words in this category include flammable and inflammable (yes, if that couch you were considering purchasing brags that it is “inflammable,” it may not be the best buy). In both cases, the prefix that we so commonly associate with the negative form serves to intensify the meaning of the word itself.
If irregardless were actually a word, it would fall into this last category. The colloquial usage of irregardless is synonymous with regardless, making me all the more peevish about the mistake — it’s not as if there isn’t already a word there to express the feeling they have.
Regardless, I’m fully prepared to embark on a one-woman campaign to bring neglected positives back into the English language. I’m thinking of “We stand with maculate” for a start.