alright v. all right

Is alright all right? Or is it an abomination.

Fowler, who despite his being invoked as a prescriptivist icon is usually pretty reasonable in his commandments, rejects alright and seems to be a major source of the objection to the word. In his classic 1926 Modern English Usage, Fowler writes:

all right. The words should always be written separate; there are no such forms as all-right, allright, or alright, though even the last, if seldom allowed by the compositors to appear in print, is often seen (through confusion with already & ALTOGETHER in MS.

But times change and so does what is considered acceptable in standard English. Robert Burchfield, in his 1996 updating of Fowler’s work injects a class distinction into the usage:

all right. 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. Alright, first recorded in 1893 [...] is the demotic form. It is preferred, to judge from the evidence I have assembled, by popular sources [...] It is commonplace in private correspondence, esp. in that of the moderately educated young. Almost all other printed works in Britain and abroad use the more traditional form.

The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) simply notes that it is “a frequent spelling of all right.”

Pam Peters in her 2004 Cambridge Guide to English Usage indicates that there are subtleties to alright that are frequently ignored by commentators, and takes a swipe at Burchfield:

The spelling alright is controversial for emotional rather than linguistic or logical reasons. It was condemned by Fowler in a 1924 tract for the Society for Pure English, despite recognition in the Oxford Dictionary (1884-1298) as increasingly current. But the fury rather than the facts of usage seem to have prevailed with most usage commentators since. [...] Dictionaries which simply crossreference alright to all right (as the “proper” form) typically underrepresent its various shades of meaning as a discourse symbol. It may be concessive, as in Alright, I’ll come with you—or diffident, as in How’re things? Oh alright—or impatient as in Alright, alright!. None of these senses are helpfully written as all right, which injects the distracting sense of “all correct.” Those who would do away with alright prefer to ignore its various analogues, such as almost, already, also, although, altogether, always, which have all over the centuries merged into single words. Objections to alright are rarely justified, as Webster’s English Usage (1989) notes, and Burchfield (1996) only makes a shibboleth of it. [...] At the turn of the millennium, alright is there to be used without any second thoughts.

On this side of the pond, things are similarly muddled.

Bryan Garner, in his 1998 Dictionary of Modern American Usage, is categorical in his rejection of the word:

Alright for all right has never been accepted as standard in AmE. Still, the one-word spelling may be coming into acceptance in BrE.

Yet, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961) states:

In reputable use although all right is more common.

The American Heritage Dictionary (2000) sides with Garner, but is somewhat less categorical:

Despite the appearance of the form alright in works of such well-known writers as Langston Hughes and James Joyce, the single word spelling has never been accepted as standard. This is peculiar, since similar fusions such as already and altogether have never raised any objections. The difference may lie in the fact that already and altogether became single words back in the Middle Ages, whereas alright has only been around for a little more than a century and was called out by language critics as a misspelling. Consequently, one who uses alright, especially in formal writing, runs the risk that readers may view it as an error or as the willful breaking of convention.

As usual, however, Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1989) gives the most exhaustive treatment in an entry that runs nearly two pages. The conclusion:

Is alright all right? The answer is a qualified yes, with these cautions. First all right is much more common in print than alright. Second, many people, including the authors of just about every writer’s handbook, think alright is all wrong. Third, alright is more likely to be found in print in comic strips, trade journals, and newspapers and magazines than in more literary sources, although it does appear from time to time in literature as well.

Alright is indeed a fairly recent development, appearing only at the end of the 19th century. There are much earlier uses, but these faded from the language long ago. There is the Old English ealriht and Chaucer wrote in his c.1374 Troilus and Criseyde:

Criseyde was this lady name, al right.

After Chaucer, the phrase all right, in whatever spelling, seems to vanish from the language. It pops back up in Shelley’s 1822 Scenes from Goethe’s Faust:

That was all right, my friend.

The merged word first appears in the Durham University Journal from November 1893:

I think I shall pass alright.

Reaction against the merged form kicked up in the opening years of the 20th century and, as we have seen, has not abated since. It is clear, though, that alright is a common spelling on both sides of the Atlantic. The relatively rarer use of alright in print is due almost entirely to proofreaders and compositors, as it is often seen the handwritten manuscripts of printed works, but is absent from the final, published versions. Alright cannot be rightly called an error and there is nothing inherently wrong with the form, but all right can be legitimately preferred for consistency of style or to avoid letters to the editor from outraged readers.

And perhaps the most important factor in determining whether alright is acceptable or not is that the Microsoft spell checker does not flag it as an error. This gives millions the justification to use the term with impunity.

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