Wednesday, January 26, 2011

with regard(s) to

I've been teaching in England for 11 years now, and I've come to the point where I cannot tell whether the weird things that (some of) my students write are generational (after all, I've never taught their generational equivalents in the US) or dialectal.  For the past couple of years my pet peeve has been with regards to and in regards to -- I rarely read a student essay, dissertation, or thesis without at least one of these scratching my eyeballs more than once. Aside from the use of three words where one (e.g. concerning) would do, there's that plural regards, which sounds to me like a confusion (or, if you like technical terms, a phrasal blending) of with/in regard to and as regards.*

In fact, I got so frustrated about it in my last batch of marking that I wrote this note on Facebook:

'Regard' has three uses in common idioms.

In 'with/in regard to', it means 'attention' or 'sight'. You would not pluralize those words in this context, so don't pluralize 'regard'.

In 'as regards'. 'regard' is a verb that means 'concerns'. You'd have the 's' on either verb here as they're agreeing with an unspoken 3rd person subject.

In 'give my regards to', 'regards' means 'greetings', and like 'greetings' in this context, it's used in the plural.

Glad I got that out of my system.
(Now, I must say here that language--particularly English--is not necessarily logical. The above explanations were intended as aids for learning and remembering which versions take the plural, and are not expected to be taken as historical facts, as I didn't research those at the time.)

I spent a long time thinking that the plural regards in this context is just the product of young people not reading as much edited text as previous generations of university students. But when I complained about it to someone or other, they did the one thing that can move me to immediate dialectal research. They claimed it was the effect of American television.

Reali{z/s}ing that I could imagine with regards to much better in an English accent than an American one, I started looking around. But the more I looked, the more confusing it got. It's a mystery wrapped in a shibboleth.

At first, I could not find much British usage commentary on it. But it definitely seems to be something that annoys Americans.  For instance, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (cited here) says:
In and with regard to, regarding, and as regards are all Standard, synonymous prepositions, slightly longer and more varied than but meaning much the same as about and concerning: I spoke to him regarding [as regards, in regard to, with regard to] his future. With regards to is Nonstandard and frequently functions as a shibboleth, although it can be Standard and idiomatic in complimentary closes to letters: With [my] regards to your family…. In regards to, however, is both Substandard and Vulgar, although it appears unfortunately often in the spoken language of some people who otherwise use Standard. It never appears in Edited English.
On the other hand, neither The Economist Style Guide (UK) nor Fowler's Modern English Usage (Oxford UP) have anything to say about. The Guardian Style Guide (which is more relaxed about linguistic change than some of its competitors--see this debate) says:

        regard
with regard to not with regards to (but of course you give your regards to Broadway)
And the OED says that in regards to is 'regional and non-standard' but does not mention with regards to.  So...coverage of these items is patchy, which either means that it's a newish innovation or that it's not annoying everyone else as much as it annoys me. 

On to the British and American numbers. I used Mark Davies' corpus.byu.edu website, as I often do, in order to access the British National Corpus (compiled in the early 1990s) and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (1990s-present). Using these corpora and searching with regard(s) to and in regard(s) to I found the plural 'regards' outnumbering singular in BrE, but not in AmE.


BrEAmE
with regard to:with regards to3:78:1
in regard to:in regards to1:24:1


But it turns out that this data is weird. I have no idea why the plurals are coming out so high in the BNC, but other British data don't give the same result. A possible explanation can be dismissed: maybe the 'with regards to' examples were in the appropriately plural greetings sense, as in 'I send these flowers with (my) regards to you and your mother'. But I checked, and all of the examples have the 'concerning' rather than 'greeting' sense.

John Algeo's book British or American English? reports that in the Cambridge International Corpus, the singular regard is favo(u)red 19.4:1, versus the smaller 4.3:1 ratio in AmE. So, the plural looked like it was BrE in my search, but looks AmE in Algeo's.

So, I tried another old Separated by a Common LanguageTM trick, and searched websites of American and British higher education establishments by searching the phrases on Google specifying .edu or .ac.uk sites only. Here, the picture is somewhere in between the CIC and BNC/COCA stories; both Americans and British prefer the singular, but the British are more likely than Americans to use with regards to rather than with regard to. But at the same time, the British more strongly (than the Americans) prefer the singular for the in phrase:



BrEAmE
with regard to:with regards to10:117:1
in regard to:in regards to4:12:1


The other thing to note here is that the in phrase is not as common in BrE as in AmE. According to Algeo (and the CIC), of the four combinations of in, with, singular and plural, with regard to accounts for 82% of the data in BrE, but only 68% in AmE. My .edu/.ac.uk numbers come out almost exactly the same.

The only explanation for the BNC aberration that I can think of is that most of the examples of these regard(s) to phrases in the BNC are from spoken data.  I can't know how many of the CIC instances were spoken--about 17% of the corpus overall was spoken--but much of that is the BNC spoken material.

My last search was on the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), also from Mark Davies' site. This allows one to see results by decade, from the 1810s to the 2000s. I have no equivalent for BrE. But I think I have the answer to my original question: the plurals explode in the 2000s.  This jibes with my subjective experience. Thus, I'm concluding it's more a generational thing than a dialectal one.

All this, and I haven't really given you an AmE/BrE difference: both prefer the singular, and the plural seems to be picking up speed. But that's kind of the point. My initial urge was to point fingers at the British, and the British person I talked to wanted to blame it on the Americans. But it's happening everywhere, and you only really know that if you look in the right places.



* Yes, the professional linguists' line is to be descriptive, not prescriptive. But I'm not just a linguist. I am a university instructor, and one cannot be one of those [at least not on the Arts side of campus] without being a writing instructor some of the time.  I want my students to come out of our degree program(me) writing as if they are well-read, well-spoken and reasonable.  And so, I try.

25 comments:

vp said...

Since you're talking what appears to be your own private peeve, I'll go off-topic immediately and say that your use of "Mark Davies'" as the possessive of "Mark Davies" (rather than "Mark Davies's") has hit my latest annoyance button.

I'm not sure that there's any particular US/UK distribution to this, but I'm glad to get it off my chest.

lynneguist said...

Coincidentally, the AP Stylebook tweeted on this earlier this evening, and I was following their style. But in the book manuscript we just submitted, we used 's. I tend to think that it should differ according to whether the name-final 's' is voiced [z] or not [s]. But no one else is going to follow me on that, I think.

Doug Sundseth said...

MWDEU has a similar discussion:

"The second line of comment* goes back at least as far as McCracken & Sandison 1917, where "in regards to" used in place of "in regard to" is cited as an error. The adherents to this line are also numerous, but they are almost all American (the one exception is Longman 1988). The issue in this case appears to be largely a social one. "In regards to" seems to be an expression heard chiefly from those who speak H.L. Mencken's 'vulgate.'

"Most of our citations were taken from phone-in radio programs.

...

"Our evidence suggests that "in regards to" is an oral use not found in edited prose."

FWIW, I share vp's peeve, but then I consider AP to be, at best, questionable in several broad categories of stylistic dispute.

* The first line discusses judgement** of "as regards" and "with regard to" as "circumlocutory and jargonistic".

** I prefer the British spelling here, though my browser objects.

Paul Danon said...

When I edit other folks' text, I try to get rid of expressions such as the ones being discussed and "concerning". If you want to write about something, just write about it.

I'm interested by Lynne's postscript on how university-teachers might see it as part of their job to help their students write well. I never encountered this in the 1970s (even though I was in an English-language department) but I did in the noughties, which is surprising, because I thought things had become progressively more chilled as time has passed.

Layah said...

I started college in 2001, so I only have experience of teaching in that era, but I can't imagine a teacher in any discipline handing back a paper without marking grammatical errors. If students are getting to college (university) without the ability to write in standard English (which they are), then I think the college would be failing them if they graduated and were still unable to write in standard English.

As far as regards versus regard, for me (28, California) in regards to sounds absolutely wrong and with regards to sounds a bit better. My two roommates both disagree, and prefer the plural. We all agree that we would rather use some other phrase, especially regarding or concerning, to either of those.

I don't recall ever being taught the correct form, which probably means it's not something my high school teachers thought was important.

vp said...

Reading Layah's comment, it struck me that Lynne ought do a post in "As far as X [is concerned]". Or perhaps she already has?

Anonymous said...

If we are allowed to do peeves in this discussion, can anyone explain to me how regards can be "best" or "kind"? Or, conversely, what a sub-optimal, unsympathetic regard might look like?

Nicky said...

I follow your voiced/unvoiced distinction in regard to possessive nouns ending in S, Lynne. Traditionally that is what has been done. Many writing handbooks today, however, say adding 's is fine.

As a Canadian, I keep my regard singular in those prepositional phrases as you outline (except for "give my regards" and using the word as a verb). I believe I always use "in regard" never "with regard" which sounds American to me for some reason.

superdinosaurboy said...

On reading this post I didn't have much of an intuition about which of 'regard(s)' I preferred. So I checked the text of a review I have just sent off. It turns out I used 'with regard to' and 'with regards to' once each. Looks like the variation occurs on a micro level too, at least in my personal grammar (British English).

DaveBush7 said...

Consulting my internal grammar, "in regards" is obviously wrong, but "with regards" is perfectly correct.

Following on from this "in regards to" is wrong as soon as I reach the regards, whereas "with regards to" is just a bit off when I reach "to"; so I even though I agree it's wrong in theory, in practice I wouldn't notice the mistake.

Anonymous said...

I read vast quantities of printed text, watch relatively little American television, and "with regards to" has - I think - always been my preference. I shall have to put it down to a "regional and nonstandard" upbringing, but that's fine by me - after all, the other version is regional, too. It's just that region that doesn't get marked as such, like RP speakers claiming not to have an accent.

Do I sound a little peeved? Perhaps. This column certainly sounded rather snobbish.

Nineveh_uk @LJ

arnie said...

Many British peevers tend to blame "Americanisms" for a lot of perceived solecisms. The non-standard s in the idiom is usually edited out of published work. If the BNC has a large proportion of spoken English, that may well be the reason for the discrepancy, as you suggest. Since the corpora are now including items published on the Internet, over time I would think that both British and American uses of the plural versions will appear to rise, as so much is self-edited (that is, mot properly edited at all).

I tend to avoid both (all four?) constructions; what's wrong with "regarding"?

arnie said...

(that is, mot properly edited at all).
To prove my point, that should have read:
(that is, not properly edited at all).
Despite re-reading and previewing my post, I still missed that typo.

-Ingeborg Sophie said...

I'm bilingual Norwegian - (British) English and I have used ''in/with regards to'' probably all my life without anyone pointing out that there was something odd about that expression. Until I spent an exchange year in California and a TA advised me to [maybe try and look for synonyms] (quote from a term paper).

As Arnie mentioned above, I think many British prescriptivists tend to blame AmE influence for every thing that is considered 'wrong' or anomalous in BrE.

Picky said...

Memory is an unreliable bunch of twisted things, of course, but (for what it's worth) mine (BrE) suggests that I have been hearing the "with/in regards to" error all my lengthy life, and that it has been considered all that time to be a solecism and a social class marker. Mind you, almost everything in BrE is a class marker, of course.

biochemist said...

Oooh, this British academic would usually write 'with regard to', but preferably 'regarding', and if in note form one writes 're' [re your previous comment] - but I can hear myself using regards in speech.

My peeve, since it seems to be the fashion, concerns 'concerning', which might have been similar to 'regarding' as used above - but now is often used to mean 'worrying' or 'causing concern'. [this is a concerning development] Scope for lots of confusion and ambiguity there!

Ellen Glek said...

Thank you for bringing attention to this transition in English! After repeating the phrase several times to myself, I realized that I would never write the plural "in/with regard(s) to", but would accept it, and use it, in spoken English. The line is blurring!

Another spoken error that gives local flavor is "there's" for plural and singular objects. "There's two here." is ok, but only spoken. Even educated people say this in casual contexts although they'd never write it.

Any ol' excuse to use that lovely continuant, fricative /z/.

-Ellen, 26, Oregon, USA

Zach said...

I have always used the 'with regards to' form and to me the non-pluralised form seems wrong.

I always assumed it was like the forward/forwards and backward/backwards differece between BrE and AmE - guess I was wrong. I have however never been picked up for using 'regards to' at school or university and I'm pretty sure most of my professors use it too.

Shaun Clarkson said...

"Or, conversely, what a sub-optimal, unsympathetic regard might look like?"

I think I'm right in saying that to the typical American it looks like British customer service...

Andy J said...

I was interested by your (Lynne's) comment that Fowler was silent on the subject so I consulted my 2nd Edition (reprinted 1988) copy and he has a fairly long article on the subject of regard and under compound prepositions, so I guess this was edited out of the later editions.
It was amusing to see Fowler (or maybe Gowers) fulminating on the use of the verb regard on its own without a post as in phrases where consider would be an alternative, for example: But the Generals present regarded the remedy worse than the evil. Today that would not raise an eyebrow, but Fowler would have required the insertion of as before worse.

Picky said...

Fowler (1st edn, 1926) does talk at some length about "with regard to" and "in regard to" and "as regards", but doesn't seem to be aware of the uses "with/in regards to" - but then nor does Gowers (Fowler 2nd edn, 1965), and nor does Burchfield (Fowler 3rd edn, 1996).

MWDEU says "our evidence suggests 'in regards to' is an oral use not found in edited prose."

The fulmination against regard without "as" in cases such as "But the Generals present regarded the remedy worse than the evil" was in the first edition, but Burchfield also regards this form as unidiomatic and so, I must say, do I. My eyebrow was very much raised. MWDEU comments on the controversy but seems to think the form is rarely found.

vp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vp said...

@Andy J

"But the Generals present regarded the remedy worse than the evil" ... Today that would not raise an eyebrow

It would raise at least two (assuming that "worse" is here regarded as an adjective rather than an adverb, which seems likely) I would require an "as" in that sentence. Can you point to examples of this "as"-less usage in contemporary mainstream prose?

Marc said...

You mention the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), and a lack of equivalent for BrE. Can I point you to the following article in the Guardian (http://tinyurl.com/25b7t9s), and the wonderfully simple Google implementation of the above tool referenced therein (http://ngrams.googlelabs.com) which does offer AmE and BrE specific searches, among others.

lynneguist said...

@Marc: I have used google ngrams before and will use them in the next post, but they are not comparable to using a proper corpus. First, it's all edited English, so we wouldn't expect to find many of the non-standard plurals. If we did, they might be in fictional dialogue, in which case they're representing somebody's idea of how non-standard speakers talk, and goodness knows what dialect those speakers are supposed to be speaking. I'm also not very confident about their classification of texts as BrE or AmE. On what did they judge? Place of publication? All of my books have British publishers, but in most cases the publisher made it clear that their authors are free to use American English or British English (as long as they use it consistently) because of the international nature of the audience.

One also can't see the sources, just the results, in the Google ngram. So, while I was able to check the BNC data for cases in which the 'greetings' sense may have been used, I could not have done the same with the ngram, nor could I have seen how many of the entries were style guides simply warning against the use of the plural.

So, I'd say, the ngrams are interesting for items of vocabulary that are readily accepted as 'standard', but not so good for things from smaller-than-national dialects and other non-standardisms.