The Kenny Loggins song “I’m Alright” from “Caddyshack” is stuck in my head as I write this. (It’s catchier than The Who’s “The Kids are Alright” or Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”)
I tweeted about alright, which is considered nonstandard by most dictionaries and not a word at all according to many stalwart prescriptivists. I said:
“Alright” is common, but it’s a nonstandard spelling of “all right,” which prevails in formal writing. Stick with two words, all right?
That brought a defense of the word from one copy editor and an immediate counter from another. The ensuing discussion over two dozen tweets involving 10 people culminated with this tweet that I woke up to: “You will pry alright from my cold, dead hands. Not sooner.”
I had hoped to avoid that, of course, and, in fact, I accept that alright inevitably will earn its place between already and altogether. But if I find alright while editing someone’s copy, I will suggest it be changed to the accepted all right.
None of the dictionaries I commonly use lists alright as fully acceptable. American Heritage calls it “nonstandard” and Oxford American calls it a “variant.” Other dictionaries are less categorical. Webster’s New World says alright is a “disputed spelling of all right.” The Oxford English Dictionary refers to it as “a frequent spelling of all right.” Merriam-Webster is the most accepting, only hinting at a dispute: “In reputable use though all right is more common.”
Bryan Garner, in the third edition of “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” created a five-point scale to show to what degree a disputed word has entered the lexicon. Stage One is Rejected and Stage Five is Fully accepted. Alright rates Stage Two: Widely shunned, although it could be argued that is common enough to warrant Stage Three: Widespread but …
The English language is a great democracy in which popular opinion sets the course. We may individually defer to the writers of our high school grammar texts, but ultimately there is no single compilation of the Laws of Grammar that we are bound to follow. We collectively set the course. As with any democracy, it sometimes gets ugly.
That “alright” is a word is indisputable. There it is, seven words to the left. There it is in song titles and 37 million times on Google (and 72,500 times on Google Scholar). There is a question as to whether it should be a word, but a better question might be “why not?” There is precedent for making words by dropping the second l in the preceding all.
The American Heritage usage note on all right suggests that the combined form missed the boat only because it came along so late. The OED corpus suggests people didn’t start commonly using “all right” to mean satisfactory until the 18th century. Words like altogether and although already were in use by the Middle Ages, before dictionaries and usage guides.
“Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” (published by Merriam-Webster) devotes nearly two pages to alright. It suggests that there are reasons to differentiate between the stresses placed on all right vs. alright. As one person tweeted: “I’ve graded some tests and papers that were alright; definitely not all right.” That distinction would have been allowed to flourish, Merriam-Webster’s usage guide says, “if it were not so regularly suppressed by copy editors.”
For now, I will keep suppressing, albeit with a margin note explaining the dispute.
As Arthur Crudup (and later Elvis) sang, “That’s all right, that’s all right, that’s all right now, Mama, any way you do.”
Mark Allen was a newspaper journalist for more than 20 years. Currently, he freelances as a writer and editor in financial services, higher education and other fields, and blogs here. Find him on Twitter @EditorMark.