Logical English

Every once in a while, I’ll hear someone use a word or phrase in a nonstandard way, and think, “but that’s just illogical.”

“Irregardless” is a good example. I’ll think:

…but regardless means regardless, so irregardless would mean something like, “regardful.” Right?

When I start to think like that, a trip to my nearest dictionary usually helps the feeling go away.

Why? Because English isn’t logical.

Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t like “irregardless,” but I have to think of a better reason than, “it’s illogical.”

After all, I’m generally ok with “flammable” and “inflammable” meaning the same thing. And we use phrases all the time without really knowing what they mean, or worrying about whether they make literal sense.

“I was head over heels in love.”

Yes, but then, my head was over my heels before I was in love, too. My head was over my heels while I bought milk yesterday. What’s special about the head being over the heels?

“The proof is in the pudding.”

Apparently, the phrase used to be, “The proof of the pudding is in the tasting.” Now THAT makes sense. But when was the last time you heard someone complain about the less logical version?

People speak according to conventions, but we sometimes want to feel as though our conventions are more than that. We want to feel that our conventions are logical. That they make sense.

And maybe they do, as a rule. But there’s a percentage of our speech that doesn’t make objective sense at all. It’s there because of history. Because lots of other people use the language the same way and therefore understand what we mean.

Whenever I hear, read, or THINK, that a usage is wrong solely because it’s not logical, I try to take a step back. The usage may be wrong because it hurts communication in some way (using a word that people object to can ruin their experience), but it’s  not wrong just because it’s illogical.

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