language change

“Alright” Is All Right, But That Doesn’t Mean It’s the Best Choice

Over on Kboards today, I read a good thread on a perennial editing question, “Is ‘alright’ all right?” I have some thoughts on this matter … of course! To fail to care deeply about such minutia would be to abandon my self-definition as Really Quite Obsessive About Words. Buuuut, the thread seemed to have run its course, and I hate to stir things up by adding a post. Writers can get pretty exercised about this one. Because aren’t we all At Least a Little Obsessive About Words?

So, I’ll ask the question here: Is “alright” all right? And I’ll go right on and stake out an answer: Yes and no, but mostly no, but perhaps not for the reason you think.

First off, yes, you’ll see “alright” in the dictionary. And you’ll see “comprise” defined as “constitute” and “forte” pronounced for-TAY. Etc. That’s because these words are in the process of change. A century or three from now, few people will use “all right,” and no one will remember that “comprise” once meant “contain.” Dictionaries are generally descriptive, not prescriptive, so if people out there are using a particular word in a particular way, it will end up in the dictionary. That makes dictionaries not always useful in making editing choices. All many dictionaries will tell you is that, Yes, some people out there are using this word in this way. But you already knew that; if the word weren’t being used in the way you want to use it, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to you to use it that way. Some of the better ones have extensive usage notes. I think Dictionary.com is outstanding in that area. But many of them don’t.

Getting back to “alright”/”all right,” the problem is that the change to the word’s spelling is in process right now, not complete. Therefore, a substantial part of the population thinks of the new spelling as “wrong.” They remember being taught the mnemonic “‘alright’ is not all right” in grade school, and they took it to heart. They don’t necessarily spend their time navel-gazing about the idea that language is constantly shifting, and that spellings and definitions aren’t really right or wrong in some objective sense, but merely common or uncommon, accepted or not accepted. Most people don’t think of vocabulary that way. Words mean certain things and are spelled in particular ways; you know the right way, or you’re misinformed.

And importantly, the types of people who remember the rule they learned about “alright”/”all right” when they were eight years old are probably more likely to care about which spelling you use. Just think of it: They remember something from third grade! It’s practically super-heroic. You know what makes people remember stuff from way back when? Caring about it. Thus, these are the folks who get annoyed that so many people are “doing it wrong, these days.” Those who blithely go around using “alright”? I bet they’re less likely to get irked at seeing the form they don’t use. Early adopters of language changes are the more flexible folks. Because of educational experience or personality or something else, they’ve taken language flux on board more readily.

So, does one edit to please the uptight, old fashioned folks or the laid-back, rolling-with-change folks? You can probably guess my answer: When you’re editing and you encounter a word in the process of change, I think it makes sense to choose the older or more traditionally acceptable of the competing forms. The people who are still clinging to the old form/definition will nod and say, Ah, here’s a writer who really knows her stuff! And the people who’ve moved on to the newer form in their personal usage? They probably won’t be all that bothered about seeing the older form. They’ll be used to encountering it in formal documents, or they won’t notice the difference, or they’ll notice it and shrug it off. Some small percentage might think, Ah, that fuddy-duddy, still sticking to the old ways, resisting the natural evolution of language! But I bet they’re a small contingent.

So, yeah, there’s nothing really wrong with “alright,” and one day, it will reign victorious. The pull of “already” and “altogether” and “albeit” and “almost” and “already” and “also” and “always” is too strong to resist. “All,” bless its heart, is clearly a word destined to be chopped up and squished onto things. Why should “all right” remain a holdout?

BUT. Until it the contest is well and truly over and “all right” has come to sound archaic and/or pedantic, I think it will remain the safer choice.