All Right vs. Alright — Part II

I spent last night enjoying the Harry Potter festivities in “Hogwarts Square” (Harvard Square), including a great concert by Harry and the Potters. I went with my sister, and despite not camping out all day, we got a spot right at the front of the line. We had our books in hand (only $22.01 including tax at the Coop — the cheapest I’ve seen) and were walking out of the store by 12:17.

Even so, I was a bit too tired to post last night.

A coworker, Spence, sent the following piece to me yesterday, telling me that it would provide great material for the all right vs. alright debate. It was written by Robert C. McGill, the resident “Grammar Maven” at Random House. You can check it out here.

This is a great piece because it has so much historical context and because the author is neutral. He makes a great point: language is continuing to evolve, and at this point in time, there is no truly official rule that states that alright should be stricken from the record permanently. All we can do is explore the debate further.

Here it is:

The other day my wife was composing an email message and used the word “alright.” The spell checker flagged it and she asked me why. I told her (because it was what I had learned in high school forty years ago) that it is wrong; that she should use “all right.” Since then, I looked it up in a dictionary and discovered that “alright” is…all right. When did this happen? Was my teacher (gasp!) wrong? And what about my spell checker? Enlighten me, please.

The spelling of all right–or more appropriately the spelling of alright, since the former is never questioned–is one of the Great Usage Debates of recent times.

Forms like all right, in whatever spelling, were around in the Middle English period, and then died out for no obvious reason. They reappeared in the early eighteenth century; it is uncertain whether all right was a re-coinage, or whether we just have no written evidence for four hundred years.

In modern times, the form alright is first found in the 1890s. Presumably, it was created and/or popularized based on analogy with such words as already and altogether. These spellings, though, had been long established by that time, while alright, being newer, could be criticized. And criticized it was, from the early 1900s onwards.

Usage writers and copy editors (and schoolteachers) tend to really, really hate alright. Some of the comments one can collect from them are “horrendous,” “ignorant,” “illiterate,” “over my dead body,” “lazy,” and the like. This hostility has not changed much in recent years, despite the ever-increasng frequency of the form.

It has always been true that the form alright has been more common in non-formal contexts. But it has also been used for the better part of the century by undoubtedly notable writers. Theodore Dreiser used it through the manuscript for The “Genius”, though H.L. Mencken made him change it to all right. Other alright users include James Joyce in Ulysses, Flannery O’Connor, Mordecai Richler, Langston Hughes, and Gertrude Stein.

While in general, alright can be found in all the senses of all right, in practice there can be a real semantic distinction between the two, because the two word form all right can mean ‘all correct’ or something like that, while alright can only mean ‘good; safe; healthy’, etc. when used as an adjective. (Similar distinctions are found with already and all ready, though these forms have diverged to the point where they are not interchangable at all.) 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’.

This sentence is not theoretical; it appeared as the cover line in New York magazine in 1995, which occasioned such an outburst of criticism that the magazine felt obliged to run an explanation several issues later. Their main points were that alright was a clear allusion to the song “The Kids Are Alright,” by The Who, and the clarity issue mentioned above. Their explanation probably did little to satisfy the many outraged English teachers who called their offices.

The current status of alright is hard to assess. It is very common even in edited writing–some studies have suggested that it is more common, which seems unlikely. Many people and many periodicals use it regularly. Yet it is still loudly condemned (your spell checker, like most, is designed to reject anything that’s even slightly problematic). Depending on your linguistic philosophy, it is either an outright error that is distressingly widespread, or a perfectly standard usage that is unnecessarily condemned.

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8 responses to “All Right vs. Alright — Part II

  1. I think it’s Jessie Sheidlower who wrote that

    http://www.jessesword.com/
    http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19990604

    There is “no truly official rule” about anything in English. English has no academy that can make any official pronouncements. All we have is a variety of opinions.

  2. Great job of culling the varied arguments from the past several days. It makes for a fascinating debate.

  3. And what exactly is wrong with fake words?

  4. As I noted on my currently semi-functional blog, alright is a perfectly cromulent word. I can’t stay and argue right now, because I dropped a Skittle under my desk. Usually I wouldn’t care, but it’s a green one.

  5. Oooh is it one of the new carnival flavors? The Lime slush??

  6. No, I’m kind of a traditionalist when it comes to Skittles.

  7. First of all, I just bought the newest HP not 15 minutes ago for $19. I beat the hype and the price. Hoozah!

    Second and lastly, let me place a couple ditto marks underneath Jeff Martin’s comment. Should we stand up for this ovation, or would that seem terribly insincere?

  8. Katharine Swan

    Carnival Skittles???? Ooh, I love those!!! I usually like the original flavors best, but they really outdid themselves this time.

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