Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Regardless v. Irrespective; Regard v. Respect

This one is by request, but it does intrigue me, and no, I will not be attempting to define "irregardless".

In fact, this comparison is really regard v. respect, since both words contain modifiers for the negative ("ir" and "less"). Regard has a complicated etymology. Regard originally derives from Indo-Europen "wer", through Middle English "warde" (and its variant spellings) through German "warten" to Old French "garder" for "to watch". Regard, then, literally means "to watch again", however, figuratively, it means "to pay attention to" as it derives from to the idea of watching again and again being that you don't stop watching, or paying attention. The word evolved into "to think highly of and/or with a particular feeling" as if when you are truly paying attention it is because you would think highly of the person or have a particular feeling that would inspire the attention. Therefore, regardless naturally means inattentive or unmindful.

In contrast, respect comes from the Latin "specere" for "to look", and thus, respect means "to look at or consider again" and by extension, finally, to mean "deference". Therefore, irrespective means without a second look or thought.

So, the real issue is given the closeness of the etymologies, how does respect differ from regard? Regard has its origin from watching with a purpose, hence the evolution through guarding and paying attention and imbuing the watching with a higher sense of worth, while respect is just looking with no purpose, and then as a result of what you see, paying closer attention and giving the look higher worth. The intent of the initial observation is different, leading to a different purpose for observing, although quite probably leading to the same type of ultimate observation. However, there is a separate distinction through the implied usage. Regard looks at the physical characteristics, again, the reason for guarding or watching. Respect looks at a quality of a person, the reason for giving a second look. Now, a quality of a person may be a physical characteristic (a pretty smile, a scar), but it was not the reason for having to watch the person. Therefore, we give regard to pedestrians at a crosswalk, and we give respect to the police car stopped on the side of the road. The pedestrians are a group of people who need protection against traffic and therefore give continual watching to, while we have no particular interest in the police car except for what the officer may subsequently decide to do which could affect us, therefore, we pay more attention until its relevance is moot. We regard beauty as an asset, and at some point we hope that others will respect the person for more than pretty looks. To take some common and easy ones, we are told to respect our elders, implying that we would not give such notice on first glance, but we should look deeper to find something worthwhile and therefore, worthy of deference. We don't regard our elders. That just sounds odd (like a malapropism), unless they are feebleminded and need elder care. Then, it's appropriate.

When we return to regardless v. irrespective, however, these words are generally used on a meta-level to regard v. respect, as in the fact or quality of what should be regarded or respected. Regardless of the fact that it was physics exam, the student answered the essay questions with dissertations on economic philosophy. True story. Irrespective of his desire to maintain his 4.0 GPA in economics, he submitted the essay for the physic professor to grade. Regardless has the idea of ignoring something to which you should have paid attention, while irrespective is dismissing something to which you had no need to pay attention. Regardless of the weather, my friend and I go walking every morning (almost true, but not due to the weather). Irrespective of his 7 y.o. daughter's whining, he goes to work every day. Ok, that might be a little harsh. Depending on the parent, it could just as easily have read, regardless of his 7 y.o. daughter's whining, he goes to work every day. So, depending on the person and the societal norms of what we should "regard", and even just cautious politeness, regardless has a broader usage. Irrespective, then, is almost flippant, as well, the lawyer in me prefers "notwithstanding" as a more generic, and perhaps obscure substitute. Irrespective of the judge's counseling, Plaintiff's counsel proceeded to attack the witness's credibility on his extra-marital affair. Only Plaintiff's counsel would actually presume to defy a judge so blatantly. For the rest, it would be regardless of the judge's counseling, the attorney continued to zealously represent her client by cross-examining the witness on his extra-marital affair to attack his loss of consortium damages.

So, irrespective (or perhaps regardless, as you see fit) of what you think of my analysis, perhaps we should work to err more on the side of regardless.

Ed note: I started this comparison over a month ago, but it took some time to really process the subtle differences, and I couldn't extract myself to work on any other words until I finished it, hence the extreme delay. Again, thank you for your patience. Hopefully, other words will not create such obstacles...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting explanation! How would you compare these two with "in spite of"? It seems like "irrespective of" could be replaced by "in spite of" in some cases.

Lauren said...

Thank you to David for recently pointing out my obvious typo where I had inadvertently confused "regard" and "respect" myself in my discuss. That was a very careful reading, and I appreciate the ability to make these posts as accurate as possible.

Reshma said...

Hi - this is an interesting analysis, and glad I came across it. In terms of writing technical documentation, would you recommend irrespective or regardless, and why? for example: The model supports a single-user interface, irrespective/regardless of the number of licences purchased.

Vince Forgetta said...

Thanks for the good explanation

Lauren said...

Reshma, thank you for the question. The line in the original post that seems to sum up the usage is: "Regardless has the idea of ignoring something to which you should have paid attention, while irrespective is dismissing something to which you had no need to pay attention." This suggests that the word you want is "irrespective" as the number of licenses has no bearing on the model; therefore, there is no reason to pay attention to the number of licenses. But as a lawyer, and since it was important enough to add the sentence about the model v. the number of licenses in the documentation even as a disclaimer, this may suggest the use of "regardless" to indicate that having considered the licensing issue, it can be safely be ignored. I will leave it to you to determine which usage you need based on your intentions and what emphasis you want to convey.

As for general writing, as you can see from the above analysis, it is example specific.

Sarah said...

This is excellent - thanks!

D. R. said...

Thank you! Super helpful!

Whatever said...

I noticed that irrespective was never used until the improper use of "irregardless" hit critical mass. It's as if people still want to say "irregardless" but know it's wrong, so they say irrespective instead to show they are smart. Can we go back to just plain regardless again?

Unknown said...

And compare "in spite of" with "despite." Now you have the following from which to choose:
In spite of
"Despite" means, "without being affected."
"Regardless" means, "without regard"
"Irrespective" means, "without thinking about or considering (something)"

It seems that "despite" is used more often in past tense, as in, "Despite being thrown out, Greg sacrificed himself to advance his teammate."

Whereas "Regardless" and "Irrespective" is used more in present and future tense. "Regardless of being thrown out, Greg will sacrifice himself to advance his teammate."

Irrrespective? "To not consider or think?" "Irrespective of being thrown out, Greg will sacrifice himself to advance his teammate."

Here, how about using all three in a sentence?!

"Despite knowing that my reasoning will be challenged by English experts irrespective of age, gender, or socio-economic background, I am compelled to post it regardless of the outcome."

(Did I just use "despite" in the present tense?!) And just when I thought I was onto something! ��

Adalace said...

Thanks for taking the time to research and construct this insightful post. Now I can consider the issue from a more educated vantage. I'm glad you didn't simply appropriate each word's use according to strictly defined criteria.

Anonymous said...

You have provided fantastic clarity. Thank you.

CurBow said...

Thank you! So, irrespective and regardless are specific degrees of dismissiveness?

pater eusebius tenebrarum said...

This was a very interesting post, but I wonder if you aren't reading a bit too much into it. As far as I can tell, "regardless" and "irrespective" are almost always interchangeable in day-to-day use. There is no danger of being misunderstood or the meaning of a sentence being materially (or even subtly) altered if one uses one or the other. From my perspective the term "irrespective" serves mainly one purpose: it allows one to now and then replace "regardless" in order to make one's writing more enjoyable to read by avoiding word repetition. Regardless of this, I did like your trip down etymology lane.

Chris Thompson said...

I don't think words create obstacles, I think words present obstacles. (joke)

skan said...

Can we also use "irrespectively"?