“Alright” Is Not All Right!

This is the third version of this piece, rewritten for clarity.

The spelling alright for all right is considered nonstandard, but it has a number of apologists. These apologists are primarily extreme descriptivists—people who misuse linguistic research methods to attack anyone who cares about standard spelling, grammar, usage, and punctuation. I used to agree with them, mostly owing to social pressure, but upon further research, I’ve concluded that there’s no compelling cause to abandon the traditional all right.

Alright probably arose through confusion with words like already and altogether. It has lesser-known cousins, too: alsorts, alround, and alover for all sorts, all round, and all over, all based on similar false analogies.

The American Heritage Dictionary suggests that some of the objections to alright stem from its history. Single-word al- compounds, such as already, almighty, although, and altogether, are from Old and Middle English, not Modern English:

This resistance may seem peculiar, since similar fusions incorporating all, 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. Readers may view the use of alright, especially in formal writing, as an error or a willful breaking of convention.

All right as we know it, on the other hand, wasn’t used until the nineteenth century. (There was an older word that resembled alright, but it has nothing to do with the modern expression.) Modern all- compounds, such as all around, all over, all set, and all done, have the word all written in full. Even single-word compounds, such as the adjectives allover and overall, still use the full word. Al- for all is a dead combining form—words beginning with al- are a closed class. Already and although are living fossils, but alright is Piltdown Man.

Apologists claim that the meaning of alright is distinct enough from all right for it to be regarded as a separate word, or that the expression isn’t literal enough for it to be spelled as two words. There are four problems with this line of reasoning:

Other apologists invoke “common usage” to justify the use of alright. Whose common usage? A lot of people write alot for a lot and use your for you’re. Extreme descriptivists enjoin professionals to imitate novices. In no other creative field is this kind of thinking acceptable: musicologists don’t tell professional singers to imitate off-key shower singers, and graphic-design professors don’t tell their students to make flyers in Microsoft Word using Arial, Calibri, Comic Sans, and Papyrus. The primary users of alright are nonprofessional or semiprofessional writers, or writers who are good at description but poor at mechanics. It’s the form preferred by people who don’t care about getting things right. Most polished writing, whether professionally edited or not, uses all right. I’ve reviewed a lot of online fiction, and I noticed that the strongest writers predominantly used all right. The alright users were more likely to make other errors, such as it’s/its confusion, omitted commas, and other compounding errors like everytime and atleast. The higher the standard of writing, the rarer alright becomes. The deliberate use of alright in serious writing is akin to a graphic designer’s using Arial, Papyrus, and Comic Sans: amateurish, sloppy, and disappointing. Elevating the tendencies of the unskilled over the experienced smacks of philistinism. We should try to emulate the people who care, not those who don’t.

Most print books use all right—the proportion of alrights to all rights is even lower than the proportion of people voting for Republican presidential candidates in Massachusetts or California. As of 2019, the gap between the two is larger than it was in the 1980s, too.

A Google ngram chart showing the dominance of all right over alright

Via Google ngram viewer, 1800–2019

Even if alright did have all the merits that apologists attribute to it, its sullied reputation precedes it. After all, the primary purpose of language is communication, not mere self-expression, and communicating well means considering your audience’s reactions. Using the standard all right will allow your readers to focus on your message, rather than your inability to put a space between two short words.

The ruling: Stick to all right, and be wary of usage “experts” who use alright or encourage you to use it indiscriminately—chances are, they care less about honing your writing skill than they do showing off their descriptivist credentials.