“Give my regards to Jean when you see her” I said to a friend the other day. (If I were considerably younger, I would no doubt have said “Say ‘hi’ to Jean…”)

Giving your regards to someone” is a standard, if now old-fashioned, phrase that many people have used or will at some stage use.

Signing off an email with “Warmest regards” (my usual one) or some other formulation containing regards is also standard and uncontentious.

But a problem arises when that use of regards is unwittingly transferred to the set phrases “with regard to” and “in regard to.” Obviously, those phrases are used in rather different contexts: “Give my regards to” is mainly oral, while “in regard to” and “with regard to” are typical of writing – and not every kind of writing at that. Typically, they populate (some might say “infest”) formal, probably academic writing. (As it happens, this blog about the issue was sparked by spotting a professor, no less [or should that be “fewer”? 😉] using the phrase “with regards to”.)

Some editors would write both variants off as flatulently long-winded and replace them with something supposedly crunchier, such as “about” and similar prepositions, but that often really isn’t going to work.

Typical examples

Here are examples of the typical use of “with regard to”: they link noun Group A to noun Group B and could not be replaced with about, because they seem to me to boil down ideas that could be expressed in complete clauses into a prepositional phrase in a way that about cannot achieve: notional clauses along the lines of “in so far as it affects B/as far as B is concerned/when it comes to B” and so forth. Alternatively, they could sometimes be replaced by other set prepositional phrases such as in respect of, with reference to, and so forth.

We are facing a very grave situation in this country [A] with regard to the wellbeing of hill sheep [B].
NFU (National Farmers Union) Countryside: Farming News, 2001 – Brit. English

The conversation that we are engaged in is one that I think is certainly worthwhile , to try to determine how do we safeguard privacy and keep the American people safe , how do we find balance in that effort with regard to our surveillance activities…
CNN transcripts, 2014 – U.S. English

(That those sentences could be rewritten to be simpler is doubtless true, but more would be required than simply tinkering with a single phrase.)

In contrast, in the following “over” would do just as well, but, as suggested earlier, “with regard to” is often the starch in the collar of writing that wants to be besuited and important:

Many students have little or no choice with regard to their housing circumstances.
NACTA (North American Colleges Teachers of Agriculture) Journal, March 2005 – U.S. English

Is with/in regards to “acceptable”?

Now, exactly how often do people fall into the “with/in regards to” booby trap? And, more importantly, is this blunder “acceptable”?

Acceptable here has two facets: do dictionaries and usage guides accept it? (The answer is “no”.) And do any editors worth their salt accept it or would they change it? I asked a group of British editors belonging to the relevant professional body and they unanimously agreed that “with/in regards to” arewrong, which means they would correct them on sight.

In fact, regard and regards as nouns could be differentiated on the basis of their grammar as this Collins dictionary for learners entry clearly shows: regards as in give… regards to is a plural noun, while regard is defined as uncountable. Though whether that analysis helps is debatable when what we are dealing with are set prepositional phrases.

And how common is this glitch? Regular followers of this blog will know that I search in language databases known technically as corpora (singular corpus, the Latin for “body”). For anyone visiting for the first time (Thanks!), a language corpus is a searchable collection of texts held electronically and coded for analysis of different kinds, such as grammatical, syntactic and semantic. All kinds of researchers use them these days, as do dictionary-makers and linguists.

I looked at three corpora maintained by Oxford University Press within the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) and the comparison produced some illuminating data which I will discuss in the second blog on this topic.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for reading the post. The examples I gave were not intended to ‘corroborate’ anything. They struck me as two adequately representative ones out of the nearly 27,000 showing the pattern I was discussing. Clearly there was not room to show all 27,000, ;-). However, I take your point that some people might consider them somehow less typical because they come from the same magazine source; though, of course, the sentences in question were unlikely to have been written by practising UK farmers rather than the agricultural journalists who staff such organs. Kind regards, J.

    Like

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