An American Editor

February 18, 2010

On Words: Alright and All Right

Dictionaries and usage guides are necessary tools for editors. Problems arise, however, when the guides and dictionaries disagree or when they say “yes, but.” Such is the case with alright and all right.

Authors, including such notables as Flannery O’Connor, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Dreiser, and James Joyce, have used alright, but the consensus seems to be that alright is not all right to use – it is nonstandard English.

That alright is considered substandard English is odd considering fusions of all ready to already and all together to altogether are accepted uncritically. But that is one of the mysteries and beauties of English — the lack of rhyme or reason for something to be okay or not. One theory, advanced by the The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, is that already and altogether became single words in the Middle Ages, thus before the arrival of the language critic, whereas alright has been around for little more than 100 years (since near the end of the 19th century-beginning of the 20th century), giving language critics an opportunity to cast aspersions on its use.

Even though the words are not always synonymous, some critics, such as Bryan Garner, ignore the differences. As the American Heritage Guide notes, “The sentence The figures are all right means that the figures are all accurate, that is, perfectly correct, while The figures are alright means that they are satisfactory.…”

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage asks “Is alright all right?” and answers with a qualified yes: First, all right is more commonly used in print. Second, the authors of most handbooks for writers think alright is wrong. And third, alright is more likely to be found in trade journals, magazines, and newspapers than in more literary sources. (Is word snobbery at play here?)

The earliest use of alright in modern usage is by Chaucer in 1385. But once we leave Chaucer, there are no examples of either alright or all right until the late 17th-early 18th centuries when there are examples of all right but with all used as a pronoun, as, for example, in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719): “desir’d him to…keep all right in the Ship.”

The first uses of all right as a fixed phrase appear in the early 19th century, as in Shelly’s (1822) Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (“That was all right, my friend.”) and in Dickens’ (1837) Pickwick Papers (“‘All right, sir,’ replied Mr. Weller.”). The first recorded use of alright in modern times was in 1893 in the Durham University Journal.

The controversy over the correctness of alright seems to have begun in the early 20th century. Frank Vizetelly denounced the use of alright in his 1906 book, A Desk Book of Errors in English. In 1924, the Society for Pure English published a symposium on alright by H.W. Fowler of Fowler’s Modern English Usage fame. Fowler considered the word bad spelling and in his 1926 Modern English Usage, he repeated his earlier denunciation of the word. In Fowler’s third edition (R.W. Burchfield, Ed., 1996), the discussion opens with “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.” The entry concludes, “The sociological divide commands attention.” Basically, Fowler, a word and social snob preferred all right because the hoi polloi prefer alright, an attitude continued by Burchfield. Clearly, a well-reasoned and justifiable position.

According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Theodore Dreiser repeatedly used alright in his manuscript but H.L. Mencken, his editor, had him change it to all right. It seems to be a battle between writers (alright) and self-proclaimed language experts (all right). Merriam Webster goes on to say that “undoubtedly [alright] would be even more frequent in print than it is if copy editors were less hostile.” (Editors do have some influence!)

According to Bryan Garner, today’s usage guru, “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially all right” (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009). Garner labels alright as a stage 2 word, that is, “widely shunned” on his Language-Change Index. Garner also calls alright an “invariably inferior” word, but without saying why it is “invariably inferior.”

I know that my opinion regarding usage isn’t at the level of esteemed, but this seems to me to be much ado about nothing. Using Garner’s own statement that “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially all right” demonstrates the utility of distinguishing between all right and alright, with both being acceptable when appropriately used. If he had written instead, “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially alright,” it would be clear what “colloquially alright” means. By using all right, it isn’t clear whether alright is colloquially inaccurate or simply unsatisfactory, although we can guess the former from the tenor of his comments. However, if we accept Garner’s statements that the function of language is to communicate clearly, it seems to me that it is perfectly alright to distinguish between all right and alright solely by intended meaning and not by whether some critic thinks one is a better spelling or form than another. It also seems to me that it is all right to always use alright.

12 Comments »

  1. You cite the AHD: “The sentence ‘The figures are all right’ means that the figures are all accurate, that is, perfectly correct, while ‘The figures are alright’ means that they are satisfactory.…”

    In spoken English, a careful speaker would probably put a slight caesura between “all” and “right” in the first sentence, so the listener would understand the intent. But a really careful speaker and a careful writer would say, “All the figures are right” to signify that they are all accurate, which then lets “the figures are all right” signify that they are acceptable.

    This recalls a very common mistake in usage: Very, very often, someone will claim that “all of them are not X” when the speaker means “not all of them are X.”

    Comment by Michael Brady — February 18, 2010 @ 2:37 pm | Reply

    • Authors often tell me to leave a sentence as they have written it because it is how people speak (this is in nonfiction and outside dialogue). I try to make authors understand that inflection, tone, facial changes, and other visual clues make understanding of speech easier, but all of those cues are missing in the written word. Consequently, more precision is required in writing than in speaking. I use the example of an email or a forum posting where some readers become incensed and others can’t figure out why they are incensed. It’s because writing misses visual cues.

      BTW, I, too, remember the days of to-day.

      Comment by americaneditor — February 18, 2010 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

  2. Before I leave this webpage, I remembered another example similar to this all-consuming question. I’m 61; in my lifetime, I’ve see the words “to-day” and (more frequently) “to-morrow” in print, both of which have vanished altogether … all-most.

    Comment by Michael Brady — February 18, 2010 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

  3. I almost blogged about this this morning, in fact, but it got a little acidic, even for me, and I decided not to.

    Here’s the problem: “altogether” is not a simple mashup of “all together,” nor is “already” the same as “all ready.” The single words are different parts of speech (yes, I know, there’s a new term for “part of speech,” but I keep forgetting what it is), with different functions in language. “Altogether” and “already” are adverbs; the phrases are pronoun/verb pairings.

    I admit that a slight case can be made for some uses of “alright,” in that it sometimes (note that “sometimes” and “some times” are not the same, for that matter) functions as an adverb, but we also have the same argument about “alot” (strangely, not yet “alittle”), “awhile,” etc, where common phrases are simply becoming single words with no valid reason to do so and in cases where it will inevitably cause confusion and ambiguity.

    I am not opposed to progress. I remember when computers called each other via “mo-dem,” yet I don’t object to “modem” because we’re not likely to need to say modulator-demodulator ever again, nor to remember the root of the phrase. But “They are alight.” is as wrong as “They are altogether.” or “They are already.” Altogether what? Already what? Alright what?

    Comment by levimontgomery — February 18, 2010 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

    • The beauty and the heartache of English is that it refuses to stand still. This is why Jonathon Swift and John Dryden, among others, urged an Academy of English be created. But just as there is no valid reason for common phrases such as a while to become awhilke, there is no obvious valid reason why they should remain apart. Clarity in speech and writing is more important and word construction whould be bent to fulfilling that goal, not fulfilling someone’s perception of high class and low class.

      Comment by americaneditor — February 18, 2010 @ 5:22 pm | Reply

      • To those who maintain (as many do) that there is no reason to label “alright” or “alot” as mistakes, I propose a small thought experiment. Please point out the errors in the following:

        He was driving acar down aroad. He’d been driving alot for quite awhile now, and he was alittle tired. He needed to stop for coffee, and then he’d be alright.

        Comment by levimontgomery — February 19, 2010 @ 1:12 am | Reply

  4. Thanks for covering this. Though, as a copy editor, I disagree with your conclusion, I appreciate the time you put into this.

    On the topics of correctness and language evolution, you made one “mistake” in your writing that points to an area of language change that always leads me to paradoxical beliefs. The “mistake” (and I put it in quotes because some might not see anything wrong with it) you made was the phrase “the hoi polloi.” as I understand it, “hoi polloi” is Greek for “the masses” — “hoi” means “the.” So putting “the” in front of it is redundant.

    I’d wager that this is a relatively common “mistake.” Like “vis-a-vis,” people may understand what “hoi polloi” means, but they don’t understand how it translates. So my question is this: Should we accept language change that is based on widespread misunderstanding of the word or phrase, therefore perpetuating a common error until it is no longer an error? My gut reaction starts with the knowledge that not all change is evolutionary, and that things can devolve. Should we accept this devolution? Should we just accept that “compose” and “comprise” can be used synonymously? That “niggardly” is somehow a racial slur? That “miniscule” is an acceptable alternative to “minuscule”?

    On the other hand, there are also plenty of examples of this sort of change-through-ignorance that I am perfectly happy to accept, like unravel; either form of could(n’t) care less; and flammable, inflammable, and nonflammable.

    I have a deep-seated disgust for change based on ignorance, but it seems like so much language change has come through that sort of process.

    I don’t expect a complete discussion here, but it might be something you want to consider for a later blog post?

    Comment by 4ndyman — February 18, 2010 @ 6:28 pm | Reply

    • Definitely something to thinks about as a future topic.

      But to answer your question about the hoi polloi. Technically you are correct: the is redundant with hoi. But as Garner notes “. . .the three-word phrase predominates and ought to be accepted.” (Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009, p. 423). What Garner says shouldn’t be accepted is the terms use to mean the elite rather than the common masses. Ain’t English (and language critics, too) grand? :)

      Comment by americaneditor — February 18, 2010 @ 8:35 pm | Reply

    • “The hoi polloi” has an analogue in the adopted French phrase, “a la”: We say “a la mode,” which is French through and through, and we also say “a la Jones” but not “a Jones,” because the latter sounds stilted. In English, we do not use a definite article before a person’s name unless we want to distinguish one Jones from another (and usually we use the demonstrative “that” or “this”), or for a mildly humorous effect.

      BTW, my first edition American Heritage Dictionary lists “hoi polloi” as a noun (in the H listings) and does not include a usage comment. Fowler recommends “eschewing” the use of the phrase, but concedes that won’t happen “as long as Iolanthe is played”! And Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, explains the term without any comment about the double use of “the” (and also quotes a passage from Dryden in which he says “the hoi polloi….”

      As for the changes that occur through ignorance, I daresay that’s how almost all of them occur! Otherwise editors would be out of work and detectives would speak with well-bred accents like William Powell used in the Thin Man movies.

      Comment by Michael Brady — February 19, 2010 @ 3:33 pm | Reply

      • William Powell and Myrna Loy — what a dream team! The Thin Man movies are among my favorites (as are Bridge Over the River Kwai, the first Star Wars, and To Kill a Mockingbird). The Dashiel Hammett novel The Thin Man, along with his Maltese Falcon, are true genre classics. But if I had to choose a media character (i.e., video not print) who I consider extraordinarily interesting and classicly well played consistently, it would be Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole. Every time I read a Rumpole story by John Mortimer, I think of McKern’s portrayal.

        Comment by americaneditor — February 19, 2010 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

  5. [...] (another dispute in the making between my dictionaries and usage books, which was discussed in On Words: Alright and All Right), I still don’t really know what makes a work identifiable as part of the dada movement [...]

    Pingback by On Words: Dada « An American Editor — March 3, 2010 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

  6. ‘All right’ is proper English;
    ‘Alright, alot, irregardless and noone’ are all nonstandard.

    Face it.

    Comment by Israel — October 9, 2012 @ 12:16 pm | Reply


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