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The Society for Editors and Proofreaders has given its implicit endorsement in a tweet of an article on misused words at Writers Write. Let the reader beware.

The greatest howler in its list of supposedly misused words comes in the comment on irregardless: "Red alert! This is a made up word. It is often meant to be the opposite of regardless, but for now, this word does not exist in the dictionary."

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Where to start.

Let's start with Merriam-Webster.com, the American Heritage Dictionary, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, and Webster's New World College Dictionary, all of which contain entries for irregardless. They all label it as nonstandard, but it is there. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its origin as American and dates its first reference to 1912, so it has been around for some time.

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The second thing is its meaning. It means the same thing as regardless.

And third, yes, it is "a made-up word."* As are all words. Words do not exist in some ideal Platonic realm. They come to mean what users collectively make them to mean, which is why we see semantic drift.

If you want reliable advice, it can be found in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: "Word or not, irregardless has continued in fairly common spoken use, although its bad reputation has not improved with the years. It does occur in the casual speech and writing of educated people, and it even finds its way into edited prose on rare occasion. ... But irregardless is still a long way from winning acceptance as a standard English word. Use regardless instead."

So why merely parrot dubious advice** rather than consult reliable authorities?

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I see a glimmer in the farther/further entry in the Writers Write post: "Farther is a distance between two objects and/or people, while further means to advance or progress." The farther=physical distance, further=degree distinction is beloved of the Associated Press Stylebook, because it is tidy.

Actual usage, MWDEU explains, is more complex: "In adverbial use further dominates when there is no sense of distance and as a sentence adverb, but both farther and further are in flourishing use whenever spatial, temporal, or metaphorical distance is involved."

It is easy to see the appeal of articles like the Writers Write post. Once you assume, as schoolroom grammarians and some copy editors (alas) do, that there is a set of Rules, once you have mastered the whole lot, you can simply apply them without further thought.

It is much more complicated to have to make judgments. Judgments have to take into account register (conversation, casual writing, edited prose) and many gradations within registers (what is appropriate in edited journalism may not be suitable for edited academic prose). Authorities like MWDEU describe the range of possibilities in usage and leave you to figure out for yourself what is best for the subject, occasion, publication, and audience.

I didn't promise you it would be easy.

*The "made-up word" canard appears to have been lifted from an article in the Huffington Post listed as a source.

**To be fair, the Writers Write post mixes sound advice with the bad. You really ought to observe the affect/effect and allusion/illusion distinctions.

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