The Century-Long Consensus: Why “Alright” Is Not All Right

(Note, 2020-11-17: Essay overhauled for simplicity)

“Alright” is and has always been nonstandard in Modern English, and there are no compelling justifications for using the single-word spelling over the traditional all right. The vast majority of professionally published books, magazines, and newspapers use all right, not “alright.” Yes, the standard spelling may seem arbitrary, but all spelling conventions are arbitrary. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect writers and editors to put a space between all and right. Just as we avoid writing “freind” for friend, “alot” for a lot, and “definately” for definitely, we should avoid using “alright” for all right.

When a word or expression is called “nonstandard,” that means it’s not recommended for serious writing outside text messages, shopping lists, and Facebook posts. Very few people would object to “alright” or “thru” in a text message, but many more will if these variants appear in a book or newspaper. Using “alright” in a newspaper, book, or magazine is like wearing sweatpants and flip-flops to a job interview: it’s inappropriate. It doesn’t put you or your work in the best light. Flip-flops and sweatpants are comfy. I get why you’d want to wear them. There may not be anything intrinsically wrong with sweatpants, spelling errors, and flip-flops, but that doesn’t mean people won’t judge your appearance or the appearance of your writing.

Some people claim that “common usage” justifies the use of “alright,” but they should define what “common usage” means. For some, “common usage” doesn’t distinguish between edited Standard English, YouTube comments, pop lyrics, or family newsletters. All members of a language community may speak and write a language, but that’s not the same as having professional editing expertise. You could easily argue that the confusion of “your” for “you’re” is also common usage, but very few people would tolerate a sentence like “Your not going to believe this.” The majority of print media, as well as high-quality online sources, use the traditional all right and eschew “alright.” In 2008, the ratio in books was about one “alright” instance for every eight all right instances (Garner, 2016). Google ngram data from 2019 indicate that the gap between the standard all right and “alright” is even wider than it was twelve years ago. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) shows an even lower ratio for “alright,” with about one “alright” instance for every 30 all rights. While these corpora do show a recent increase in the use of “alright,” the increase is slight, and its presence in formal published writing is negligible compared with that of all right.

“Alright” is rampant in self-published books, blogs by nonprofessional writers, and social-media posts. Lots of pop and rock musicians use it in their lyrics, but we can consider that, and some uses of “alright” in fiction, a creative liberty. After all, the Rolling Stones sang “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” and nobody is using them to justify the use of double negatives in formal written English. Even Netflix subtitles use all right. Video games with high copyediting standards such as the Pokémon series will also use the traditional two-word spelling. If Pokémon and Netflix can stick to all right, so can you.

Here’s the century-old consensus on “alright.” With few exceptions, most usage experts and editors recommend all right, as I do, and the empirical data back them up. Avoid “alright.”


Twenty-two years before the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage was published, the West Virginia Farm Review (West Virginia State Board of Agriculture, 1904) instructed its contributors to stop writing “alright”:

Alright is not all right.—Some of our contributors write “alright,” as though it were a legitimate word, with the meaning “all right.” But it isn’t, and every time you write it in a communication that is intended for publication you force the editor to correct it before it goes into the hands of the printer. If you want to be all right when you write all right write it all right and not alright.

The Elements of Style—better known as “Strunk and White”—lists all right as a two-word phrase. The original Elements, written solely by William Strunk (1920), says the following:

All right. Idiomatic in familiar speech as a detached phrase in the sense, “Agreed,” or “Go ahead.” In other uses better avoided. Always written as two words.

The recommendation still stands in the fourth edition of Elements (2000), though the modern reader is less likely to object to all right in any form. The portion about all right being better avoided has been removed, and the final sentence has changed to “Properly written as two words — all right.”

In Is It Good English and Like Matters (1924), Wilfred Whitten—under the sobriquet John O’London—writes:

I regard “alright” as the most fusty, invalidish, picture-postcard misconcoction that has aspired to a place in the language. It unites two words, only to weaken both, and it impoverishes the idea to be conveyed. “All right” is really a contraction of “All’s right,” but wise contraction will go no farther. Each word increases the other’s value.

All versions of Fowler’s Modern English Usage indicate that “alright” is considered nonstandard, though the last two versions are a little more permissive than the first two. Even the most recent version, however, suggests that “alright” is still unacceptable in formal writing.

From the original Fowler’s (1926):

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 and altogether) in MS.

With his coauthor Frank Whitaker, Wilfred Whitten continues to take “alright” to task in Good and Bad English (1946, 3rd ed.):

NEVER—never—write “alright.” It is all wrong (not alwrong), and it stamps a person who uses it as uneducated. “Alright” joins two words only to weaken both. It cannot be defended on the analogy of “almost,” “already,” “albeit,” etc. In these words the fusion of two ideas is complete, whereas “all” and “right” do not lend themselves to this welding process; the two ideas co-operate better than they unite. Even “already” does not express “all ready,” nor does “almost” mean the same thing as “all most.”

“All right” (not allright) is alone correct.

In the second edition of Fowler’s (1965), Ernest Gowers adds more information about “alright”:

[“Alright”] is still regarded as a vulgarism, inadmissible not only in those obvious cases in which the two words are completely independent, as in The three answers, though different, are all right, but also where they may be regarded as forming a more or less fixed phrase, so: The scout’s report was ‘all right’ (i.e. all is right) / Is he all right…

Gowers quotes Charles Talbut Onions, the co-editor of the first Oxford English Dictionary, who adds,

The reason why the prejudice against alright is so strong seems, however unconsciously, to be the recognition of the colloquial levity of the phrase, and an objection to its literary pretence to be a good grammatical adverb which its condensed form would endure. Even if we are prepared to admit alright for some uses, here at all events (that’s quite all right, I’m quite all right) we should spell it out, the stress being full and even. It will almost inevitably establish itself in the long run, but it is to be hoped that the example of already will be closely followed and it will be restricted to adverbial usages such as The difficulty can be got over alright. Even here it is presently barely justifiable since the vocalic value of all is usually retained and no marked differentiation of meaning has yet taken place.

In 1975, John Trimble wrote, “All right is right; alright is wrong. So many people don’t know alright is wrong, though, that in another decade or two it will probably be recognized as Standard English. And it deserves to be. It’s a shorter form than all right and says exactly the same thing. Nothing would be lost except surplusage.”

Although Trimble believed that “alright” should become standard by virtue of its brevity, he still warned readers of its nonstandard status. Forty-five years after the publication of Writing with Style, “alright” is still nonstandard. Al- forms arise because they’re clearly differentiable from their two-word forms. Arguing that “alright” should replace all right doesn’t reflect the precedents set by already and almost, neither of which mean “all ready” or “all most.” If brevity is needed, there’s a two-letter solution: OK.

In his meta-analysis American Usage and Style: The Consensus, Roy Copperud (1980) compiles usage authorities’ recommendations. “Although often seen in print, alright is regarded as nonstandard by four authorities, American Heritage, and Random House. Flesch expresses confidence it will establish itself, and Webster says it is in reputable use, though not so common as all right, which is favored by the consensus. Alright probably evolved in imitation of already.”

The standards have changed little in forty years.

Robert Burchfield’s New Fowler’s (1996, p. 43): “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.” Burchfield considers “alright” the “demotic form,” more common in nonliterary sources such as pop music, popular magazines, and and adds that “alright” is used “hardly ever by writers of standing.” He finishes by writing, “the sociological divide commands attention.” In short: “alright” is used primarily by people who either don’t know or don’t care. Editors and writers should care.

Barbara Wallraff (2000), a former copyeditor for The Atlantic, writes, “Alright is emphatically not standard English.” Nine years later, she also wrote,

“All right” is still the correct, standard form. Granted, “alright” is increasingly common, and the list of well-known authors who have written it is increasingly long. (Some of them, however, also wrote “all right” at other times. Gertrude Stein, whose sentence “The first two years of medical school were alright” is often cited as evidence of the word’s respectability, used “all right” in her book “Three Lives.”) “Alright” turns up in informal writing and in fictional dialogue, but “all right” remains more common in relatively formal writing, and all but the most permissive dictionaries and usage manuals recommend it.

Paul Lovinger (2000, pp. 12 & 13) writes, “And the fact that some permissive dictionaries condone the misspelling is no excuse as long as it is widely viewed as a sign of ignorance,” and adds that “‘alright’ may have been hatched by analogy with already.”

From the late Bill Walsh, a Washington Post copyeditor (2000):

From the 1960s Who classic “The Kids Are Alright” to the 1990s situation comedy “Alright Already,” all right has been all but invisible. And it’s not altogether (!) unreasonable to split off this meaning of all right and let it have its own spelling. Already/all ready and altogether/all together took that road, and the latter pair in particular form a precise analogy to alright and all right.

But I’m not giving in, perhaps because this is one of the classics. We word nerds have known since second grade that alright is not all right. You won’t hear a peep from me in 2004, when all dictionaries recognize alright as the standard, but, as with online, I will not be a party to forcing the issue.

Simon Heffer, the former editor-in-chief of The Telegraph, writes in Simply English (2014), “All right should be written thus: the usage alright is ubiquitous in America, though educated Americans avoid it as fervently as we should. All right remains all right.” Heffer is wrong to blame Americans—this isn’t a regional problem—but he’s right about the consensus.

In the 2015 edition of Fowler’s, Jeremy Butterfield writes, “The conclusion is: feel free to use [“alright”] in business or personal writing, and in dialogue in fiction. But in any formal work, or any that is likely to be edited, its pariah status will ensure that it is dismembered either literally or metaphorically.”

He’s softer on “alright” than I would be, but his wording still reflects its nonstandard status. Nobody is insisting that people adhere to standard conventions in emails to their mothers, Facebook posts, or fictional dialogue.

Bryan A. Garner, author of the modern-day equivalent of Fowler’s, Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016), writes, “Alright for all right has never been accepted as standard,” and adds that “the combined version cannot yet be considered good usage—or even colloquially all right.” He gives “alright” the same rating on his “Language-Change Index” as other errors such as “alot” for a lot, “irregardless,” and the contraction “it’s” for the possessive pronoun its. Garner, unlike some other commentators, would rather alert writers of the rule and prevent them from annoying their readers.

Usage experts base their rulings on current editorial preferences. The majority of British and American literary and journalistic style manuals enjoin authors from using “alright.” All the manuals I cite are from the past five years, and most of them are more recent than that. These include, but are not limited to:

(Links with dollar signs after them are paywalled.)

Some style manuals, such as The Guardian’s, equivocate about the acceptability of “alright,” but even these will note that “alright” is unacceptable to traditionalists. No style manual recommends “alright” over all right, and very few allow both. The only style guide I’ve seen that allows “alright” without comment is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s manual.


References

  1. The Associated Press (2020). “All right.” The Associated Press Stylebook. Retrieved from https://www.apstylebook.com/ap_stylebook/all-right
  2. British Broadcasting Corporation (2020). BBC News Style Guide. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsstyleguide/a
  3. Brunskill, I. (2017). The Times Style Guide, 2nd ed. Glasgow: Times Books.
  4. Copperud, R. (1980). American Usage and Style: The Consensus. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.
  5. Fowler, H.W. (1926). Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. Fowler, H.W. & Gowers, E. (1965). Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. Fowler, H.W. & Burchfield, R.W. (1998). The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. Fowler, H.W. & Butterfield, J. (2015). Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  9. Frandsen, J.F. (2014). Interpreting Standard Usage Empirically [unpublished master's thesis]. Brigham Young University, Provo.
  10. Garner, B.A. (2017), in Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. DOI: https://doi.org /10.7208/cmos17
  11. Garner, B.A. (2016). Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
  12. Heffer, S. (2014). Simply English. London: Random House.
  13. Lovinger, P.W. (2000). The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style. New York: Penguin Reference.
  14. Siegal, A.M., et al. (2015). The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, 2015 ed. New York: Three Rivers Press.
  15. Strunk, W. (1920). The Elements of Style, 1st ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/37134/37134-h/37134-h.htm
  16. Strunk, W. & White, E.B. (1979/2000). The Elements of Style, 4th ed.
  17. Trimble, J.R. (1975). Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  18. United States Government Publishing Office (2016). Style Manual: An Official Guide to the Form and Style of Federal Government. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office.
  19. Wallraff, B. (2000). Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
  20. West Virginia State Board of Agriculture (January 1904). West Virginia Farm Review, vol. XII, no. 1. J.O. Thompson, ed. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=4fhAAQAAMAAJ&pg
  21. Wroe, A., et al. (2018). The Economist Style Guide, 12th ed. (2018). London: Profile Books.