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In regard to…regards

Monday, March 09, 2009
"I would prefer a phrase that was easy and unaffected to a phrase that was grammatical."

—Author W. Somerset Maugham

On Sunday mornings, I often listen to a public radio program called "A Way with Words." People call in with their questions about proper usage, the history of popular expressions, and so on. During the hour, many important, interesting, and quirky aspects of the language are discussed. A few Sundays ago one listener called in with this question about his business writing:

"I'm not sure if I should use 'in regard to' or 'in regards to.'"

Now, if you're like me, you probably haven't given this expression much attention. But we all use it, don't we? My initial thought was regard and regards were pretty much interchangeable in this context. Not so. One of the hosts stated definitively that "in regard to" is the correct form, and my own quick research confirmed his ruling. Regards is properly used to express good wishes, as in "Give him my regards." So there you go.

That got me thinking about toward or towards. I have used these words interchangeably. You may have as well. Well, my research confirmed that either form is acceptable. One interesting note: toward in more common in American English, while towards is more common in British English.

How far you go with proper usage depends on your perspective. For many people, nitpicking about regard or regards is not worth the bother. As long as their communication is clear, and contains no egregious usage errors, they will stick with what seems and/or sounds right. In The Art of Readable Writing, Rudolf Flesch would agree with this line of thinking. Here's what he has to say about usage:

The point is that the rules of English usage are not immutable natural laws, but simply conventions among educated English-speaking people. If enough educated people insist on making a "mistake," then it isn't a mistake any more and the teachers might as well stop wasting their time correcting it.

Flesch would say, for example, to use the plural, regardless of grammar, whenever you are clearly talking about more than one in reference to a singular indefinite pronoun such as everyone or anybody, simply because so many people already do so. The same holds true for a reference to a group noun such as committee:

Everyone in the market department should have their laptops updated at the winter sales meeting.
Where will the executive committee hold their meetings?

He would also say that the age-old distinction between can and may is, generally speaking, ignored. Didn't your teachers, and your mother, continually remind you to use may for "permission" and can for "ability"? Well, in the real world, people generally use may to refer to "possibility" and can for "ability" and "permission."

Flesch also discusses, and debunks, the traditional distinctions between shall and will, like and as, and many others.

Now, here's a surprise: Flesch's book has a 1949 copyright, which means that it was written 60 years ago, which also means that little has really changed in the last half century. We are still wondering if it is okay to say "Everyone brought their laptop" or "Who are you going to vote for" or "It's me" (rather than "It is I."). Such is the nature of our language, I guess. It is open to many different interpretations and uses, but when it comes to making sensible changes, those apparently in charge are extremely stubborn—or stated in another way, a bunch of old fusspots.

Fusspots? Hmm. I think I'll ask "A Way with Words" about the history and proper usage of that expression.

—Dave Kemper