English Grammar and Usage, Reader Polls

Grammer Pole of the Weak: It’s All Right?

Here at Above the Law, we’ve been discussing English grammar and usage forever — well, at least since 2006. We’ve discussed a plethora of grammatical and stylistic issues over the years, including how to form the possessive singular of nouns, proper use of the comma and the semicolon, and, most recently, whether to use one space or two spaces between sentences.

We’ve now decided to formalize the discussion. Every Friday we will raise an issue of grammar, spelling, or style, in our newest ATL feature: Grammer Pole of the Weak. We will kick off the discussion, then open up a reader poll and let you debate in the comments.

Today’s topic: “all right” versus “alright.” Let’s discuss….

My esteemed colleague, Elie Mystal, is fond of using “alright.” I am not. Grammar guru Jay Shepherd sides with me:

All right is perfectly all right. Alright is all wrong.

In Garner’s Modern American Usage (affiliate link), he writes:

“Alright for all right has never been accepted as standard in AmE. Gertrude Stein used the shorter form, but that is not much of a recommendation.”

Okay, let’s make this discussion a little less lopsided. Here’s an interesting analysis from Grammar Girl:

It seems pretty simple: go ahead and use “all right” as two words, and stay away from “alright” as one word. But the esteemed Bryan Garner (6) notes that “alright” as one word “may be gaining a shadowy acceptance in British English.” And the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (7) seems to contradict itself. It states that “alright” as one word “has never been accepted as standard” but it then goes on to explain that “all right” as two words and “alright” as one word have two distinct meanings.

It gives the example of the sentence “The figures are all right.” When you use “all right” as two words, the sentence means “the figures are all accurate.” When you write “The figures are alright,” with “alright” as one word, this source explains that the sentence means “the figures are satisfactory.” I’m not sure what to make of this contradiction. The many other grammar sources I checked, including a large dictionary, reject “alright” as one word. Regular listeners of this show know that language is always in flux, so perhaps “alright” as one word is gaining a small footing.

That last observation — “language is always in flux” — raises an interesting issue. A particular word or usage might be historically improper, but if it gains traction in everyday life, can it then become legitimized? Language, after all, is about making yourself understood. If a friend sends you an email after a breakup in which she writes, “I feel alright about it,” you would understand her perfectly well. When Stephen McDaniel used “irregardless” in a school-wide email, some of his classmates made fun of him, but everyone got the gist of what he was trying to say.

Language evolves. Take the word “bemused.” Traditionally it meant “bewildered” or “confused,” but people now use it to convey a sense of “wry or tolerant amusement” — e.g., “a bemused smile.” Now this newer meaning is an accepted one (even if not the primary one).

So, readers, is “alright” actually all right, thanks to linguistic evolution? Or does seeing it on the page still make your skin crawl?

Earlier: Prior ATL coverage of English grammar and usage

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