Troubling pairs – minimum, minimal; regardless, irregardless

When a news commentator recently used “minimum” as an adjective, my husband yelled out “’minimal’ the word should be ‘minimal.’” Since the issue of the correct usage of minimum vs minimal came up when I was working as a writer and editor of training curriculum some ten years ago, I was able to point out to him that this “debate” had been solved – either was acceptable according to most usage mavens.

I decided to delve into usage books to check on this, but found little discussion of the words. This pair no longer seems to cause people trouble, but may be an example of English purism discussed in the previous blog – the belief that people are using the wrong form of a word. Ammon Shea touches on this phenomenon in his book Bad English in the chapter “Words That Are Not Words.”

As with the brouhaha over Warren Harding’s use of normalcy in the presidential campaign of 1920 when people erroneously believed that it was a mistaken form of normality, minimum may have been believed to be wrongly used in place of minimal.

Both words, however, have been around since the mid-17th century: the known first use of minimum occurs in 1646 and for minimal in 1666, according to merriam-webster.com. One difference is that minimum can function as both an adjective and a noun, while minimal is just used as an adjective.

According to lexico.com, as a noun, minimum means “the least or smallest amount or quantity possible, attainable, or required”: “they checked passports with the minimum of fuss.” As an adjective, it means the “smallest or lowest”: “this can be done with the minimum amount of effort.” Minimal, which is listed as a synonym for minimum, has a similar meaning: “of a minimum amount, quantity, or degree; negligible: “production costs are minimal.”

Brian A. Garner makes a few distinctions, calling minimum an attributive adjective, an adjective that comes directly before the noun it modifies. He also states that while “minimal may or may not be absolute, but minimum always is” (520). (Richard Nordquist of Thought.com explains that absolute adjectives are “generally not capable of being intensified or compared” and are “always in the superlative degree” according to some style guides.) However, Garner admits that some authorities object to the use of minimal in a nonabsolute sense, but these are in the minority.

Garner, who tends to be more prescriptive than descriptive, has harder censure with for another troubling pair – regardless vs. irregardless. In my education, irregardless was considered simply wrong – since regardless – means without regard, and the addition of the prefix ir- often meaning “not” is redundant. Indeed Garner calls irregardless “a semiliterate PORTMANTEAU WORD from irrespective and regardless [that] should have been stamped out long ago” (466).

Most commentators believe irregardless was formed from combining two words, which is what is known as a portmanteau as Garner notes above. (Common portmanteaus are motel [from ‘motor’ and ‘hotel’] or brunch [from ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch.’]) The two words are irrespective and regardless. In fact, irregardless is sometimes used in place of of both of these two words. Resources, however, disagree on when the word first appeared, with some saying the early 20th century, others the mid-19th century, and some, like merriam-webster.com, citing 1795 as the earliest appearance in print.

Ammon Shea calls it “a malformed and unlovable creation: a perfectly serviceable word, regardless, burdened with the tumor-like and wholly unnecessary ir- prefix (54). Shea notes that the prefix ir- is a variant of the prefix in-, which has a variety of forms and meanings. Some forms include ig- (ignoble)’; im- (impure); ir­- (irrespective); en- or em- (enclasp or embark). As noted, the ir­- prefix can denote negativity, but it can also “have the sense ‘into, toward, on, within’” (55).

As Shea and others note, however, ir- can be an intensifier. In addition to irrespective, merriam-webster.com lists similar, if rarely used, words in English: irrelentlessly (“relentlessly”); irremediless (“remediless”); irresistless (“resistless”).

An interview with Kory Stamper, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, reinforces this point of irregardless as an intensifier.

Stamper claims that it has “a specific use, in particular dialects” as an emphatic application of regardless “that doesn’t translate well in print.” Stamper provides an example of in this conversation:

Teenager: “Dad, let me borrow the car. I’m a really good driver.”

Parent: “Regardless, I’m not comfortable.”

Teenager: “Oh but come on. I’ll get it detailed, and I’ll put gas in it.”

Parent: “Irregardless, no.”

As illustrated here, the use of the “irregardless” is to shut down conversation.

Still, while some continue to insist it is a “nonword,” irregardless is a word and is listed in dictionaries because, as Stamper says, they are “duty bound to enter it” despite vehement opposition. Lexicographers, like Stamper, and usage experts, such as The American Heritage Guide, describe irregardless as nonstandard or incorrect usage used mostly in casual speech or writing (263). Indeed, MS Word highlights the word as a misspelling or error.

American Heritage explains that the term nonstandard was “introduced by linguists and lexicographers to describe usages and language varieties that had previously been labeled with terms such as vulgar and illiterate,” and it notes that nonstandard “reflects the empirical discovery that the varieties of language used by low-prestige groups have rich and systematic grammatical structures and that their stigmatization more often reflects a judgment about the speakers rather than any inherent deficiencies in their logic or expressive power” (319). This is a point and belief that is held throughout this blog: there are many varieties of English, just as legitimate as the Standard English variety which happens to be held in prestige in our society.

The interchangeable use of minimum and minimal became commonplace in the latter half of the 20th century, so that it may not be causing as much upset as it was  a hundred years ago. Robert Burchfield in New Fowler’s writes that irregardless has been used for most of that century, “chiefly in N. America, in non-standard or humorous contexts” (416). Prescriptivist Garner admits that it’s common enough to have “found its way into all manner of print sources” but “[Although] this widely scorned NONWORD (emphasis Garner’s) seems unlikely to spread much more than it already has, careful users of language must continually swat it when they encounter it” (466).

Others, less emphatic, recommend that people avoid it, especially in writing or in formal speaking because they will be thought “uneducated.” Yet, as merriam-webster.com argues, irregardless has been “employed by a large number of people across a wide geographic range and with a consistent meaning” for well over 200 years. For writers, this is another instance of deciding word choices based on your individual style and purpose.

(Resources: Ammon Shea, Bad English; merriam-webster.com on minimum; merriam-webster.com on minimal; lexico.com on minimum, lexico.com on minimal; Garner’s Modern American Usage; Richard Nordquist on absolute adjectives; merriam-webster.com on irregardless; Kory Stamper interview; The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style; The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *