Gearing Up for a Debate: All Right vs. Alright

I don’t even know where to begin when discussing the debate between the words “all right” and the colloquialism “alright.” I’ve discussed this several different times, in the classroom, online, and in conversation with my friends.

It has always been my opinion that “alright” is not a word fit for publication.

I prefer to go by the guidelines put out by the Associated Press. I love my AP Stylebook dearly, and use it as my authority. (I plan to examine other styles later on.)

Here is the AP Stylebook’s entry on “all right”:

all right (adv.) Never alright. Hyphenate only if used colloquially as a compound modifier: He is an all-right guy.

That is beautiful.

It’s true that “alright” is commonly used these days, especially amongst the IM generation, but never in professional publications.

And now it’s time to prepare for a debate.

Don’t start debating now; don’t do anything yet. I want both sides to take the time to prepare. I’m going to consult journalism experts. I expect to prove that “all right” is the only acceptable term to use in publication.

In the meantime, do your own research. Try to prove me wrong. I need reasons that are as GOOD as they are accurate — just because it’s in the dictionary, Andy, that doesn’t mean it’s enough to be acceptable in publication!

Let’s see what we have.

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18 responses to “Gearing Up for a Debate: All Right vs. Alright

  1. The AP Style Guide is just that — the guide for AP articles. It is not a linguistic guide by any means. The only debates it is meant to settle are those that happen among AP writers and editors. Frankly, if anything not permitted by the AP Style Guide were really not allowed, the language would dull. (I cringe to think of an English class without writers who violate those rules — who needs Chaucer or Melville or Joyce when we can read AP articles!)

  2. I’m confused. Are you arguing that the word doesn’t exist or that it shouldn’t be used in a publication that follows the AP guidelines? You seem to be suggesting both, and it’s not exactly clear which you want.

    Alright now, as I had said before, “if ‘altogether,’ ‘always,’ ‘already,’ and ‘albeit’ (from ‘all be it’) are words, so is ‘alright.'” I stand by that comment, but I must admit that I took the quote (yes, “quote”) from the OAD (Oxford English Dictionary) and embellished on it quite a bit. The OAD’s view on the spelling “alright?” “The merging of all and right to form the one-word spelling alright is first recorded toward the end of the 19th century (unlike other similar merged spellings such as altogether and already, which date from much earlier). There is no logical reason for insisting that all right be two words when other single-word forms such as altogether have long been accepted. Nevertheless, although found widely, alright remains nonstandard.” Notice that they aren’t saying that one should be preferred over the other. Their comment that the spelling “remains nonstandard” is not a prescription, but a description, and it’s clear that the OAD agrees that the spelling “alright” is alright. Alright, then, the Oxford Press is on our side.

    I would like to close this post with the assertion that whether or not “alright” is “correct” is moot. People will continue to spell “alright” as one word, and eventually common usage will trump what certain grammarians would rather not accept as proper. If you don’t believe me, just wait. “Today” used to be spelt “to-day,” “yesterday” was “yester day” (up until about the 13th century, at least), “weekend” was “week-end,” etc, etc, etc. All it takes is time.

    PS: Fowler would reject the AP’s opinion of using “all-right” as a compound modifier. He wrote that both “alright” and “all-right” were incorrect. OMG, dilemma! I’ll tell you the same thing I tell fundies: “Don’t let a book run your life.” Srsly.

  3. I think you open and close the entire debate when you say, “It has always been my opinion that ‘alright’ is not a word fit for publication…. I prefer to go by the guidelines put out by the Associated Press.”

    You have an opinion, and a preference. They are just that, opinion and preference.

    As major pointed out, words change over time. Whether or not something is a word is dependent on what speakers use and comprehend. Whether or not it is acceptable for publication is a function of the publisher’s chosen style guide.

  4. I consulted an oracle, and we channeled the spirit of E.B. White. He said you should chill out and use whichever you feel like using. He was busy playing mah-jongg with Socrates, so he didn’t have much to say other than that. But he did mention that he took 10 years off his life by worrying too much about grammar. Maybe you should take up smoking.

  5. According to The New York Times: Despite the appearance of the form alright in works of such well-known writers as Langston Hughes and James Joyce, the single word spelling has never been accepted as standard. This is peculiar, since similar fusions such as already and altogether have never raised any objections. The difference may lie in the fact that already and altogether became single words back in the Middle Ages, whereas alright has only been around for a little more than a century and was called out by language critics as a misspelling. Consequently, one who uses alright, especially in formal writing, runs the risk that readers may view it as an error or as the willful breaking of convention.”

    From The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition: all right: Two words. Avoid alright.

    I’m pretty picky about grammar, but in this case, I’ve become okay with the fact that usage has created a new form of the word. Keep fighting the fight against terrible punctuation and spelling (I saw a sign at Wawa that said “Trucks Must Shut-Off Engines” and wanted to take a picture for you), but I think that usage wins the battle this time.

  6. What I forgot to say is that the rules are on your side, but I think the rules can evolve over time, in a few cases.

  7. So when you cite your expert source (the AP Style Guide), it’s definitive, but when someone else (say, Andy) cites his expert source (say, the dictionary), it’s questionable? What’s the point of a debate then? — Grammar Vandal will always “win.”

    You’re not so much a grammar vandal as you are an AP Style vandal.

  8. I think they’re two different forms.

    “alright” has stress on the second syllable, and “all right” is two words with equal stress on each.

    “alright” means “good; safe; healthy”, while “all right” means “all correct.”

    Here’s a quote from Jessie Sheidlower, Editor-at-Large of the OED (http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19990604):

    Thus the sentence “The Kids Aren’t All Right” can mean ‘not all the kids are right’, or ‘some of the kids are wrong’, while “The Kids Aren’t Alright” can only mean ‘the kids are not OK’.

  9. This post does not conform to AP style guidelines. Proceed at your own risk.

    While I agree that publications that follow the AP Style Guide should avoid alright, I think you’ll find that many professional publications in English do not conform to the standards of the Associated Press. I would counsel against leaving the fate of the English language in the hands of journalists who don’t seem to enjoy our confidence in any other matter.

    Alright serves a useful function. Take the example sentence “The senators are all right.” This could mean that each senator is correct or, perhaps, it means that each senator is alright. The use of alright, however, removes the confusion. It can only mean that the senators are all okay (and there is another word editors love to loath).

    As for so-called experts, I will simply point out that alright has been in use since at least the late 1800s and has appeared in numerous publications.

    I tend towards the view that “alright” falls into the same category as ending a sentence with a preposition. It isn’t an error. It’s simply an excuse for snobbery on the part people who wish to preserve arbitrary rules in order to maintain class distinctions in our society.

    The point of good grammar should be good communication not pointless adherence to outdated linguistics.

  10. Here’s the thing: I don’t think you’re getting all these negative reactions because of the concepts you’re presenting, I think you’re getting them because your delivery sucks.

    Let’s look at an excerpt from your very first entry:

    “Want to spell rhododendron?”
    “R-O–“
    “Wrong. R-H-O, D-O, D-E-N, D-R-O-N. You can’t spell it because you’re stupid.”

    You have the exact same attitude at twenty-two that you had at eight. It wasn’t cute then and it isn’t now.

    It’s perfectly reasonable to mourn the lack of proofreading in public signs and documents. But it’s also perfectly possible to write about it publicly without the constant air of You’re Stupid.

    Ask the Mighty Red Pen. She’s been doing it for almost a year now.

  11. In a nutshell: What they all said.

    I wouldn’t expect ‘alright’ to appear in a newspaper or textbook; they’re more formal and thus largely observe the rules of proper grammar. (Consider, though, that such publications also lack much in the way of style.)

    But in more informal settings, I think it’s completely acceptable. Blog posts, magazine writing, and fiction get away with bending the rules of language and grammar, usually to great effect. Sometimes popular opinion is worth listening to.

    Having said that, I’m enjoying your posts. Lynn Truss would be proud, I’m sure.

  12. What does the AP Style Guide say about the use of “all righty then?”

  13. I’ve never cared for “alright” and never use it myself. I recall seeing it in comic books in the sixties and thinking it looked funny. However, The Who ensured that it would be in the cultural mainstream when they released “The Kids Are Alright” in 1979.

    I’m sure that any attempt to drive it into extinction is doomed. A lost battle and not a significant one.

  14. I think all of the commenters make a lot of great points. No book can put a close to such a debate. There’s an art about things like punctuation–and a definite function–but when you get caught up on silly things like whether usage or a style guide dictates correctness of a word, then you’ve strayed far from your purpose. I argued with her about the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun (when he or she is not known). Some sources say usage has made this okay, some say not.

    I commend those here who have embraced the spirit of this discussion and of grammar. Language changes and evolves (like to-day and altogether), and this is something that needs to be embraced. Rules can change. What matters is that language serves its purpose and allows for artistic license. Alright and all-right give two different meanings, I agree. Mightyredpen makes a great point in that you must realize that there are more than one place to look for an answer. And sometimes there is no definitive answer.

  15. Compound modifiers are my current irritant, and it took me a few seconds to make sense of your post
    “two word form” without the hyphen.
    I’m so glad to see someone your age taking grammar seriously. When I moved to NY from Iowa, where were taught grammar throughout school, I finally asked some students why they added an apostrophe before an “s” when making a word plural. They told me that it was the rule, that the apostrophe was necessary if the word ended in a vowel. Of course, there are exceptions. ;-) Just think, we are graduating thousands of teachers who will teach this “rule.” Keep up the great work! –Gretchen

  16. Katharine Swan

    Kate, I just found your blog via the NPR story. Good for you for taking a stand! Ignore those who get nasty and defensive — it’s a normal response from people who don’t like having their flaws pointed out.

    I have to say, though, I haven’t gotten the “You’re stupid” message from your approach. You address errors in a more general sense, rather than laying blame on anyone. Anyone who takes offense being even indirectly told they’re wrong, well… That’s probably why they didn’t learn it correctly in school in the first place.

    As for the “all right” debate, I’m backing you up here. I totally agree with you, and I don’t think it’s just AP. As one commenter pointed out, other expert sources also recommend avoiding “alright.” One of my personal favorites, E.B. White’s The Elements of Style, agrees that “all right” is properly written as two words.

    A couple of other commenters mentioned that word useage changes over time. While that’s true, it doesn’t mean that in another 5 years we’ll be publishing books and articles that contain spellings such as “L8R.” In other words, not all spelling variations become acceptable in official use.

    “Alright” seems to me to be kind of like “ain’t” — a bastardization of language that is used sometimes by lay people but generally rejected by professionals and other educated individuals.

  17. Katherine, is it really your argument that individuals such as James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Mordecai Richler, Langston Hughes, and Gertrude Stein were uneducated and unprofessional?

    According to the Mavens’ site over at randomhouse.com, they all used alright at one time or another.

    Really, such snobbery is unbecoming.

  18. So, after reading all of these well thought-out opinions and comments on grammar and language, I’m starting to think that what it all comes down to is, like it or not, people will always associate good grammar with the educated. Some grammar rules are definitely arbitrary, but when it comes to writing, some rules are necessary in order to avoid ambiguity and confusion (unless ambiguity is what you want). The only grammar rules that should matter are the one’s that facilitate clear communication.

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