Etymology Usage

English is English, regardless

Q: Did Ted Olson use “regardless” correctly when he wrote in a Proposition 8 brief that Imperial County’s interests were adequately represented “regardless whether the County agrees with the State’s decision not to appeal.”

A: We would have written “regardless of whether” if we were the authors of that brief filed with the US Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

In the brief, Olson was challenging the right of Imperial County to appeal a decision by the US District Court in San Francisco to overturn Proposition 8 (the California Marriage Protection Act).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has two entries that explain what went wrong here.

The entry for “regardless” used alone describes it as an adverb meaning “despite everything,” as in “went ahead with their plans regardless.”

The entry for “regardless of” describes this as a preposition meaning “without taking into account,” as in “accepts all regardless of age.”

Less commonly, M-W says, the preposition also means “in spite of,” as in “regardless of our mistakes.”

The word “regardless” entered English in the 16th century as an adjective meaning slighted or not worthy of regard, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but that sense of the word is now considered obsolete.

The adverbial use of “regardless,” either alone or with “of” in a prepositional phrase, didn’t show up until the 19th century.

The earliest OED citation for the “of” version, from Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair (1848), is a reference to “rare and famous wines selected, regardless of cost.”

The earliest cite for the “of”-less version, which originated in the US, is from Mark Twain’s travel book Roughing It (1872): “We are going to get the thing [sc. a funeral] up regardless, you know.”  

As for that Proposition 8 brief, it should have read (as noted above) “regardless of whether.” Unfortunately, legal English isn’t known to be good English.

Well, at least the brief didn’t use the clunker “irregardless,” which we’ve written about on the blog.

Check out our books about the English language