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What’s Wrong with Alright?

The question is, why do so many people write alright when every English dictionary and style guide say that the only correct spelling for this word is all right? As of this writing, alright occurs 76,400,000 times on Web pages. I know exactly what we need: one more voice in the fray.

At the outset, let me say that my reason for doing this is that none of the dictionaries and style guides I can find give a reason for spelling this lexical item as two words. To be consistent, I will apply the same test that I have applied to all the other issues I’ve weighed in on, e.g. “a historical“, “ain’t“, and ending a sentence with a preposition—consistency of usage. (My say on split infinitives is in the offing)

Alright is as much of a word as already, also and although, adverbs of identical origin: all plus an adverb. My position has always (another one) been that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not suitable terms for settling issues of grammar; instead, we should try to write and speak consistently.

After all, that is what grammar is, a catalog of rules on how to organize language and a rule (from Latin regula, from which we obtained regularity) is an expression of a consistency. To write already, also, always, although as single words, and spell alright as two, would be inconsistent, a rule breaker.

I have another reason though. Alright is used today to mean “OK”, not “all is right”. The haggis is alright = The haggis is OK, not that everything is right with it. “OK” is an expression of mediocrity; “all right” suggests perfection. 

We wouldn’t say, “Is alright” any more than we would say “Is OK?” “Is all right?” is a perfectly good question but it implies perfection: everything is right. If we didn’t recognize this distinction, this old joke wouldn’t work: “Did you hear about the guy whose whole left side was cut off?  He’s all right now.”

In A Hard Day’s Night the Beatles sing, “But when I get home to you/ I find the things that you do/ Will make me feel alright.” Doesn’t this strike you a bit odd, John Lennon comes home to someone who only makes him feel OK? Here the phrase all right makes more sense.

Language changes. New words come into language from the outside and new words are created inside language itself. The two words all and right have been combined to form a new word whose meaning, as the meaning of new words is wont to do, drifted off on its own.

woolly bear is not a bear, a ladyfinger is not a finger, and a ladybird is not a bird, as we have noted previously in this blog. By the same token, alright is not the same as all right.  Alright is one word with one meaning, so it is much more consistent to spell it as one word than spelling it as two. 

Conclusion: it is alright to spell alright alright so long as you mean “OK”.

4 Responses to “What’s Wrong with Alright?”

  1. rbeard Says:

    realname: Doug Weathers

    email: dougw@spamcop.net

    message: Dear Dr. Goodword,

    I just read your post about the alleged word “alright”. This word makes me cringe at an almost cellular level. I must say that your defense of “alright” almost made sense to me, but upon consideration of your arguments I believe that they are insufficient to make the case of “alright”‘s wordhood.

    First let me remark upon your contention that “To write already, also, always, although as single words, and spell alright as two, would be inconsistent, a rule breaker.” Sorry, Dr, Goodword, but that ship has already sailed. English contains myriad inconsistencies and shows no sign of getting rid of them anytime soon. Rather the opposite, I would think. Do you want to embark on a campaign of eliminating every inconsistency in the language? Perhaps you’d like to start with spelling?

    If your position is to right the wrongs that you can, why pick “alright”? Isn’t it more important (for instance) to teach people that spell checkers are not the way to make your writing perfect?

    And what about all the other adverbs that tragically haven’t yet been paired with “all”? I look forward to your endorsement of “alfair”, “algood”, “algreat”, “alswell”, and “altickety-boo”. In fact, it seems that the vast majority of adverbs have NOT been suffixed to “all”, so if you’re interested in consistency, perhaps you should campaign to pluck the “al” off of “already”, “also”, “always”, and, yes, “alright”.

    Moving on, you say that “alright” is used today to mean “OK”, not “all is right”, and therefore somehow this means it’s OK to use the “word” “alright”.

    I found your Beatles example amusing, where you say “In A Hard Day s Night the Beatles sing, But when I get home to you/ I find the things that you do/ Will make me feel alright. Doesn t this strike you a bit odd, John Lennon comes home to someone who only makes him feel OK? Here the phrase all right makes more sense.”

    Actually, if you listen a little longer, you hear this phrase:

    “So why on earth should I moan/ ’cause when I get you alone/ You know I feel okay”

    Clearly “alright” and “okay” are synonymous here.

    But did John Lennon say “alright”, or “all right”? The various lyric sites I checked all show the usage “alright”, but the Wikipedia entry on the song has evidence that Lennon intended to use the words “all right” in the final version of the song. If so, then this example actually shows that “all right” means “okay”! And if so, your contention that “all right” and “alright” have different meanings is false, and your conclusion that “alright” is okay to use synonymously with “OK” is not supported.

    To be honest, I can’t provide any logically compelling reasons to not use “alright”. It just seems wrong to me, perhaps because I spent some of my formative years in England. And perhaps because it looks like it should sound like “AYL-rit”.

    Thanks for reading,

    Doug

  2. Randy Says:

    “Every English dictionary and style guide say that the only correct spelling for this word is all right?”

    The Oxford English Dictionary (online) includes ‘alright’ as a variant spelling of ‘all right’.

  3. Robert Beard Says:

    The reason we don’t write “alfair”, “algood”, “algreat”, “alswell”, and “altickety-boo” is that such words would not differ in meaning as “alright” differs from “all right”, my point in the blog. There is no way to argue that “alright” and “all right” are the same. To say that something is “alright” is to say that it is OK, not that it is perfect. How would the words you cite differ from the phrases they are spelled as today?

  4. Scott Swift Says:

    “Alright” also has a meaning synonymous with the interjection “Yes!” (or “Awesome!” or “Excellent!”) as in the Matthew McConaughey’s catch phrase line from the 1993 break-out indy film Dazed and Confused, when his Dave Wooderson character said “Alright, alright, alright!” because he is embracing three out of four of the best things in Wooderson’s life (his car, his weed and his rock n roll music) and the fourth, a hot-looking high school girl, is close at hand.

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