All right has many meanings and uses, including several as an interjection. In British English it can be a greeting. The phrase is especially common in speech – enough to have three stars in Macmillan Dictionary. The trouble starts with the variant spelling alright, which is found especially in informal and unedited English. Macmillan Dictionary says, ‘Many people consider this to be incorrect.’ Are those people right? Is alright an error, or is it alright?
One reaction to disputed usages is to reject them as errors: ‘It’s wrong, end of.’ But contrary to popular belief, correctness in English is not absolute. It’s more about what’s appropriate in a given context. A usage may be unsuitable in formal or literary writing but fine in more demotic texts such as letters, journalism, written dialogue, and social media.
Even so, experts differ on alright. Fowler, in his influential usage dictionary of 1926, said ‘the words should always be written separate’, though he conceded that alright was ‘often seen’. For this he blamed ‘confusion with already and altogether’. But this ‘confusion’ could be interpreted more neutrally as innovation by analogy – a basic driver of language change.
Fowler’s opinion prevails. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) says all right is ‘the only spelling Standard English recognizes’. Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016) concurs, and says that while alright ‘may be gaining a shadowy acceptance’, it ‘cannot yet be considered good usage – or even colloquially all right’. Garner condemns its use even in casual contexts.
Other authorities are less severe. Larry Trask, in Mind the Gaffe (2001), says alright is ‘not at present accepted in formal writing’ but considers this ‘perhaps illogical’. Pointing out the useful distinction between These answers are all right (all correct) and These answers are alright (satisfactory), he suggests that alright could become standard within a generation.
The venerable OED reports that alright is ‘strongly criticized in the vast majority of usage guides, but without cogent reasons’. That word cogent reappears in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, which gives qualified approval to alright – ‘no very cogent reasons are presented for its being considered wrong’ – and concludes that it is ‘clearly standard in general prose’.
Pam Peters, in her Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage (2007), strongly supports alright. She calls it ‘the more intuitive spelling’ and says it is used over 70% of the time in transcriptions of speech in the Australian ICE corpus. ‘The tendency to merge the two words into one (alright) is as natural as with already and altogether,’ she writes. ‘At the start of the twenty-first century it is high time we used it without any second thoughts.’
This, however, is easier said than done. Alright is not wrong, but many people think it is, so writers are often mindful of where and whether to use it. Editors and publishers will keep ‘fixing’ it until it’s more widely accepted, especially in literary and other elevated contexts. But alright will struggle to gain acceptability until it appears more in those same contexts – a catch-22. All right?Email this Post
It would be wrong to call this blog entry just alright. But from a factual standpoint, I think it may be all right.
My amateur linguistic sleuthing leads me to think that combinations like “already” and “altogether” were already common by the time people started making dictionaries, but the “all right” combination gained popularity later. While “all together” easily became “altogether,” “all right” came along too late to become “alright.” Pity.
Thank you, Mark. Your idea about why alright missed the boat, standardization-wise, sounds plausible to me. And it is a pity, but maybe there will be another boat, even if it takes a while to make the journey. I read a novel this week (Sally Rooney’s award-winning Normal People) that used alright matter-of-factly, and I wondered it if had to be stetted. The next generation of editors and publishers may give the spelling more status.