Sunday, October 2, 2011

Is this word alright?

About the time of my last romantic catastrophe, a friend asked me how I was feeling. "I'm alright," I shrugged. I certainly wasn't all right. I was just alright: not bad, could be better but surviving.
Leslie Nielsen's on my side

Corresponding with a lot of American editors and language enthusiasts, I'm surprised to find just how appalled they are that anyone would be ignorant enough to use 'alright' as if it's a real word. I've wanted to write about it for a couple of months now, but first I wanted to find out why so many people object to it. Having failed to find a reason beyond a screech of horror, I tweeted the following on Friday:
Altogether, always, although: all fine. So why get uptight about 'alright'?
The response was disappointing. A few tweeters echoed my sentiment…
Good call. I much prefer it to all right... I know it's wrong but it feels so alright. (CJ Wheeler, @Wintriguing)

No good reason. It's a stubborn shibboleth. (@StanCarey)
Give it ten years. Publishers only just coming round to split infinitives. (Eleanor Crawford, @el_crawford)
…but no one wanted a fight. However, the admirable Mark Allen (@EditorMark) sent me a link to his recent blog on that very subject, commenting, "It's one of the top search terms leading people to my blog." Mark has also done us the service of citing all the main dictionaries, so I don't have to. Their conclusions ranged from the hostile to the placidly accepting, but they all stopped short of saying it was correct.

Believe it or not, I'm quite prepared to change my opinion if someone comes up with a persuasive argument, or sometimes I'll change if it seems like I'm in a minority of one among language professionals (the latter explains why I've recently started writing 'no one' without a hyphen).

But I can't see any problem with 'alright'. As with the similarly formed 'altogether', 'always', 'already', etc, the linking of two words creates a new word with a different meaning (see also 'without' and 'anyway', but not 'anytime' or 'anymore', which serve no purpose and are simply wrong). The fact that 'alright' took a longer time to enter the language is immaterial. 'Proactive' didn't join 'active', 'inactive' and 'reactive' until very recently, but it's been embraced like a long-lost child and quite rightly so. 

'Alright' means OK or acceptable, and the construction harks back to the Middle English use of 'al' and 'ful' as modifiers of adjectives. 'All right', on the other hand, means what it says: everything right ("I answered ten questions and got them all right"). Since the two are synophones, it's advisable to split 'all' and 'right' in spoken English to avoid confusion (as in, "I got all of them right") or stress the 'all', which is what we do with other constructions. It doesn't usually cause a problem, unless you're Leslie Nielsen.

'Alright' is so readily accepted in Britain that it even has a phonetic equivalent: "Orright"; which is a Londoner's way of asking, "How are you?" In Manchester, it's "Arright?" and as you get closer to Scotland it's more like "Arreet?"

The reasons to allow 'alright' aren't compelling, but the only argument against it seems to be that it's non-standard, which is no argument at all.

Moral: 'Alright' is alright. If you want a battle, take arms against 'anymore'.


  1. Glad to see I'm not alone in this thinking!

  2. Since I am a self confessed underchiever when it comes to spelling, I've followed the all right argument for some time - it's what the dictionary tells me - despite the fact my instinct is to go with alright!
    So thanks for giving me tacit permission to go with my gut for a change.
    My argument has always been, we often say "everything is all right" or ask "Is everything all right?"
    Now if you substitute all for everything, as we often do, you get "All all right?" and that's just dumb.

  3. At the risk of angering you any further, can you explain your aversion to anymore?

  4. @LB
    Gladly. Whereas 'altogether' and 'always' have meanings that are distinct from 'all together' and 'all ways', 'anymore' is just 'any' and 'more' gracelessly stuck together. Compare that with 'anyway', which is distinct from 'any way'.

  5. If it's good enough for Pete Townshend - "The Kids Are Alright" - it's good enough for me...

  6. I must confess to having long been one of those with a mysterious yet deep-rooted aversion to 'alright', but I am moved by your argument for the distinction between it and 'all right'.

    (Damn, your Ts and Cs are powerful.)

  7. Catie,
    I hope it clarifies the issue, though everyone has to make up their own mind. I know that sounds a little conciliatory, but Placid Sub-Editor doesn't have much of a ring to it.

    I'm with you on that. There are many things to criticise Pete Townshend for (and one in particular), but not his music.

  8. Good post. I've been a fan of "alright" for many years, and I agree that the fact that it came along late is not much of a reason to disparage it.