Recently, I was reading a scene in a screenplay by one of my Writing Workshop participants when I encountered the word alright. My editor/English teacher mode kicked in automatically, and I started to mark it as a mistake in place of all right. Then I paused, remembering what we have discussed and touched on in many of the posts on writingessentialsbyellen.com: the nature of language as living and always changing and the existence of “rules” about “proper” or correct usage that are actually myths about how the English language works.
So I pulled back and did a little research to see if my own preconceptions needed updating. Sure enough, though all right is still considered preferable in formal writing, alright is considered by many to be perfectly fine for informal or colloquial writing, particularly when used in dialogue, which is the case with the Workshop screenplay scene. Some even believe that alright is moving into acceptance as standard usage.
The little exploration I did prompted me to dig more deeply into the history of usage “rules” for alright vs. all right. They are to be found on lists of confused or unacceptable, even abused words. Some twenty years ago, O’Conner wrote in Woe is I (1996) that “alright is not all right” (128), while Venolia in another handbook of the same time period, Write Right! (1995), labeled it a “misspelling,” but added that it may follow already and altogether into respectability (106).
Though New Fowler’s traces the earliest use of alright to 1893, merriam-webster.com dates it use in literature to Mark Twain (c. 1865), also citing Joyce’s use of the word in Ulysses (c.1918). Other twentieth-century authors who have used alright include Langston Hughes and Flannery O’Connor (American Heritage).
Many resources refer to the proliferation of alright in popular culture, including magazines (New Fowler’s) and songs, such as The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” (1965); Janet Jackson’s “alright with me” (1989); Jennifer Lopez’s “Gonna Be Alright” (2002); The Killers’s “Everything Will be Alright” (2004) (daily writingtips.com, merriam-webster.com).
Dictionary.com in a usage note speculates that the one-word spelling probably arose by analogy with such words as already and altogether. Indeed, because English spelling was in flux for many centuries, words like all right and already and although “had various forms over several hundred years—with spaces, hyphens, alternate vowels, one l, two l’s—until the 18th century when they settled into the spellings that we recognize today” (merriam-webster.com). However, only all right developed the later “deviant” of alright.
Calling it an “efficient little version,” merriam-webster.com says it is like other common words, such as already and altogether. These words and their two word versions also appear–sometimes under the title of “one word or two?”– on lists of commonly confused words.
These pairs all sound identical in speech, but they do not have the same meanings.
For instance, all ready as two words means “prepared,” while the one word already means “previously”: Compare the sentences:
The cookies are all ready to be eaten.
I can’t believe you ate the cookies already.
The two-word phrase all together means “collectively,” but the one-word altogether means “in sum” or “entirely”:
We saw the applicants all together in a group interview; altogether there were four of them.
(Above examples compiled from material in quickanddirtytips.com and Woe 118.)
American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (2005) argues similarly that there can be a difference in meaning with the pair all right and alright: The sentence “The answers were all right” means that all the answers were “correct,” while the sentence “The answers were alright” means that the answers were “adequate or satisfactory” (25). However, it does assert that alright has never been accepted as the standard.
Other experts agree. Brian Klems in a 2014 writersdigest.com blog post asserts that alright “technically isn’t a word,” citing Garner’s Modern American Usage which claims all right is “the standard” and alright “should be totally avoided because it’s nothing more than a spelling mistake.” New Fowler’s pronouncement is more damning: “The use of all right, or inability to see that there is anything wrong with alright, reveals one’s background, upbringing, education, etc., perhaps as much as any word in the language” (43). Both of these demonstrate the prescriptive approach, as well as language elitism.
However, writingexplained.org provides a graph illustrating that “from the 1970s onward, alright has seen its use increase considerably, signaling that it may eventually become standard.” Klems himself observes that the spell checker in his Microsoft Word program “doesn’t even give alright that angry red underline to denote that it’s wrong—it just gives me the thin green underline asking if I think I’ve made the right word choice.” (My 2013 version of Word does not even do this.)
Again we see how usage can be a contested area, as well as a highly individual choice given the writer’s situation and preference. Unless you’re writing dialogue or material for other popular culture, you may want to stick with the more accepted two-word form, which merriam-webster.com concludes is “by far the more common styling in published, edited text.” To paraphrase this source, all right can—and does—do everything that alright does, but it has the added bonus of making your English teacher—or editor happy. And if you want to be successful as a student or a published writer, this is important.
FYI: Another pair of confused words, alot vs. a lot, has caused similar, if less heated, reactions: writingexplained.com states that alot “is never seen in print” because it isn’t an actual word. (In fact, MS Word spellcheck will correct alot into the two word form, which I discovered when composing this section.) However this resource does admit that, as with alright, the one-word spelling is common in texting and web communications, and New Fowler’s cites its appearance in American English in informal correspondence as early as 1991.
(Material derived and adapted from O’Conner’s Woe is I; Venolia’s Write Right!; merriam-webster.com; The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage; American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style; dailywritingtips.com; dictionary.com; quickanddirtytips.com; writersdigest.com; Garner’s Modern American Usage; writingexplained.org [on alright] and writingexplained.org [on alot].)