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March 14th, 2007

All of a sudden or all of the sudden? / irregardless / more on left to play

by Barbara Wallraff

Bonnie May, of Leicester, Mass., writes: “I always understood the phrase meaning ‘suddenly’ to be ‘all of a sudden.’ Now I hear many people, especially younger ones, saying ‘all of the sudden.’ I even saw that in the newspaper! Am I wrong? And does it matter?”

Dear Bonnie: No, you’re right. All my dictionaries give “all of a sudden” as a phrase. You bet the difference matters -- just the way it matters whether we spell “all” with one “l” or two. Language would be useless if we didn’t all have it in common. And most of us notice even tiny deviations from what we’re used to. (If you don’t believe me, just read my mail!) When someone deviates from standard spelling, grammar or idiom, those of us who’ve learned those things tend to react unfavorably. Occasional idiosyncrasies might not make us distrust a writer or speaker, but frequent ones almost certainly will. So it’s not that saying “all of the sudden” marks a person as an ignoramus. It’s that someone who hasn’t taken in “all of a sudden” probably doesn’t know a number of other fine points and will have a hard time making a good impression on anyone better educated.

Valerie Matteson, of Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: “Why do so many news anchors and journalists use the made-up word ‘irregardless’? As a kid growing up, I heard my dad say countless times that ‘“irregardless” is not a word.’ I understand from my children that this word is now in many dictionaries. Isn’t it redundant even by itself?”

Dear Valerie: Dictionaries do include “irregardless” -- but mainly so that they can warn people not to use it. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, Webster’s New World and the American Heritage Dictionary all label “irregardless” as “nonstandard.” Dictionaries don’t like to come out and say that any word people use is “poor English” -- but that’s pretty much what they mean by “nonstandard.” The problem, as you know, is that “ir-” turns a word negative (as in “irrational” and “irrespective”), and so does “-less.” So “irregardless” is a one-word double negative. The Collegiate explains succinctly, “Use ‘regardless’ instead.”

Several readers wrote to comment on my recent column about phrases like “three minutes left to play” in sports talk. Craig Allin, of Mount Vernon, Iowa, gave a reason I hadn’t thought of for why “to play” deserves to be there: “‘Playing’ time often has very little to do with real time. Real time, as they say, waits for no man. But any sports fan knows that the last two minutes of a closely contested football game might last the better part of a quarter hour. With multiple free throws and multiple timeouts, the last minute of a basketball game can seem interminable.”

Other readers disagreed with my conclusion that each word in “left to play” serves a purpose. Nancy Porter-Steele, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, wrote: “Yes, omitting ‘to play’ would not work well. But how about omitting ‘left’? I can’t find a problem with ‘three minutes to play.’ However, I have little hope for really good English usage in sports lingo. Those poor commentators have my sympathy, as they have to keep talking, talking, talking about (often) very little!” Dear Nancy: Point taken. Thanks.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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