All right, I’ll admit it: I don’t understand the love affair with alright. I’m not convinced of the need for alright; the standard all right seems to work perfectly fine. I’ve never seen anyone argue in earnest for accepting the erroneous one-word forms of a lot, as well, or each other in formal writing, even though alot, eachother, ofcourse, and aswell are relatively common mistakes. Why, then, does alright get the hero’s welcome when alot, aswell, and other questionable adverbial compounds don’t?
I’m no knee-jerk prescriptive reactionary; I don’t give a shit if you say ain’t, and AAVE is fine by me. Even the much-maligned irregardless is OK in informal contexts. And I probably won’t say anything to you if you do spell it alright, to be honest. Unfortunately, most anti-alright arguments are little more than “Because I said so!” I think there are perfectly valid reasons to avoid alright, but they’re difficult to find in most usage manuals. The pro-alright arguments are even weaker, however. I’ll address the most common alright-defending arguments here.
Argument 1: But alright is like already and although!
I understand why people spell it alright instead of all right. When people hear common phrases, they may process them as units even if they’re not written that way. That kind of thinking results in spurious fusions like alot and ofcourse. When I was about four, I thought may as well was “mayas well” before I actually saw it in print. Alright beguiles the unwary writer through its superficial similarity to standard adverbial compounds like already and although. The apparent similarity to already is one of the usual arguments defending alright. This argument even appears in the Oxford Dictionary of English, though I think it’s a weak argument. The already merger makes sense, since all ready and already have very different meanings. All right, however, doesn’t change its meaning quite as dramatically. Alright can be safely replaced with all right in all cases. You can’t, however, replace all all right instances with alright. I’m not the first to make this argument. In Good and Bad English, a British usage manual from the mid-twentieth century, the authors make clear that alright is merely a substitute for all right without its own meaning:
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 led 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.
—Wilfred Whitten and Frank Whitaker (1946), Good and Bad English, 3rd ed.
Spelling it alright implies a greater degree of abstraction from all right than actually exists. All right can mean either all correct or satisfactory, but its relative OK shares its meanings.
Everyone’s focus is on the all portion of all right, but what about right? The difference in meaning isn’t in all; it’s in right. Fusing all right into alright doesn’t negate the dual meaning of right. The stress in all right as “all correct” and all right as in “acceptable” is slightly different, but the idea of appropriateness or correctness is still present in both contexts. OK is similar. (Fun fact: OK comes from a jocular misspelling of “all correct,” which means…guess what… all right. Full circle!) Other phrases with an intensifier before right, like quite right and too right, are two-word constructions. They haven’t merged into tooright and quiteright.
Modern lexicographers—people who study how words are used and record those uses in dictionaries—seem to follow the same practice as Whitaker and Whitten. The Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and the Oxford Dictionary of English all list all right as the headword, with alright as a variant spelling. If you look up alright in Merriam-Webster or the ODE, it’s shown as a synonym for all right. It’s as different from alright as centre is from center. And unlike centre and center, the distinction between all right and alright lacks the cultural signifiers of regional spelling variants.
Also, whoever said English spelling made sense? Trying to impose logic on it is like putting reins on the wind.
Argument 2: Well, I like alright better than all right!
I must confess that I hate alright. Hate hate haaaaaate. (Unless it’s in a song title, then I’ll let it slide. But all right still looks better.) I think it’s an ungainly Frankenstein’s monster of a “word.” But my opinion is far from universal, and alright has its fans. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess, but if you must use alright, be prepared to defend your decision. While alright appears frequently in unedited writing and popular media, it’s still considered nonstandard. And most people who spell it alright don’t even know that it’s supposed to be all right, anyway; usage-minded alright-ers are rather less common.
Sometimes I worry I’m fighting a losing battle, but then again, people have been trying to make alright standard for more than a hundred years. I don’t think all right is going anywhere anytime soon. Moreover, the majority of British and American literary and journalistic style manuals actively proscribe the use of alright. These include, but are not limited to,
- the Associated Press Stylebook. Journalists love to save space, but they’re not trimming the space and “l” from all right to do it.
- the BBC. The BBC isn’t particularly stuffy with usage, and it’s been quicker to adopt certain one-word compounds (e.g., the positively Teutonic “styleguide”) than other outlets have been, but alright is still verboten.
- the Chicago Manual of Style.
- The Economist, which lists “all right” among its two-word phrases.
- the UK’s Daily Telegraph (aka the Torygraph), which dubs alright an “abomination.” I wouldn’t go that far. I think John Scalzi would, though.
As far as I know, no style guide recommends alright over all right, and I’ve only seen one that allows both. The costs of alright outweigh the benefits of simply using the unimpeachable all right. Is alright really the hill you want to die on? (You could argue the same thing about me, I suppose, given that we’re in the midst of COVID and Trump’s godawful response to it. Eh, whatever.) All right is always all right, but alright is a much dicier proposition.
If you still really want to use alright despite all the warnings, be consistent about it. Don’t use all right in one paragraph and alright in the next. Go big or go home, y’all.
Conclusion: Alright isn’t all right, but who am I to stop you?
My verdict: Don’t even bother with alright. It’s a distraction. Would you use alot or aswell? Then don’t use alright. Rest assured I won’t correct you if you use alright in a Facebook post. Promise. Pinkie swear. I was just talking to a friend the other day who spelled it alright. Want to know what I said to them about it? Absolutely nothing, because I’m not an asshole. If I’m editing your work professionally, however, it’s going to be all right. In these unprecedentedly troubling and uncertain times (insert mawkish piano music here), I think we need a full-bodied all right, in any case. All right? Good.