It’s all right, I think we’re gonna make it

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”).

Last night, 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.”


7 thoughts on “It’s all right, I think we’re gonna make it

  1. In narrative text you mean? I’m assuming that in dialogue, a character who would not be a…well…reputable sort would mean “alright” when he speaks or writes.

    I guess, to me, all right means that something is accurate.

    Where alright means it’s ok.

    But, you’re the boss so I defer to you.

  2. Great post, Mark. I love the clarity with which you clarify things. 🙂

    Somehow, I never thought of the differentiation you pointed out in the 3rd last graf – makes total sense.

    But even so, until “alright” makes the move from Stage Two / Three to Stage Five, we as editors/copy editors can’t make the switch or risk looking inarticulate.

    Meanwhile, Free got it all right with “All Right Now.”

  3. When I say “I’m all right,” I am conveying that “all” is right with me.

    As I attempt to comfort a person in distress with the words “It’s all right” or “Everything will be all right” that’s the message intended. I want the hearer to believe that things will be fine … “all” will be right.

    Already doesn’t mean “all” is ready, you know?

    Thank you for your post.

  4. I’ve always considered this a case of international differences. I’ve been a strict adherent to “all right” in US English, but allowed “alright” in UK English manuscripts. By that rule, The Who and Elton John would be perfectly justified in their choice (but Mr. Loggins would not).

    Now, however, I’m considering reconsidering my leniency.

  5. I’m in total agreement — “I’m Alright” is the clear winner among those three songs.

    There are some fairly compelling arguments for using “alright” as the equivalent of “okay” — like all those tests and papers — but, like you, I’m sworn to the editor’s code and must correct all instances. For now, anyway.

  6. Being British, I was in my 30s before I heard anyone suggest there was a problem with ‘alright’. As with ‘altogether’ and ‘always’, it has a meaning that is distinct from the two-worded equivalent. So far, I haven’t heard any objection other than it’s non-standard, which, given that we have a dynamic and changing language, is no argument at all.

    Meanwhile, in the spirit of tossing a cat into the dog pound, can anyone tell me why ‘alright’ is so excoriated while the pointless ‘anymore’ passes without a whimper of complaint?

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