I picked up an old paperback version of Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage at a used bookstore some time ago. It was $3, and I was pretty sure someone I held in some esteem had recommended it to me. Now I believe only the first part of that sentence; I don’t suspect anyone would have recommended it. I’d thought the book was going to be somewhere between the good-if-somewhat-too-conservative Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and the wonderfully accurate Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU). Instead, it’s largely a series of unsupported statements from Partridge that this or that is unacceptable and dismissals of certain usages out of hand.

That’s par for the course with prescriptivists. Sometimes Partridge goes one step further and tries to cite evidence, although this often devolves into a contradiction. Case in point: alright. My take on alright is that, well, it’s perfectly all right. (MWDEU feels the same.) The word has been around for 100 years now, it has a different meaning and intonation pattern than all right for many (most?) people, and it follows by analogy from altogether, although, already, and almost. Partridge does not agree. His entry on alright starts off with

alright is an incorrect spelling of all right and an illogical form thereof.”

Now, Partridge was writing in the 1940s, and at that point the form alright had less of a pedigree, so it’s not fair to judge him through 21st-century eyes. Thus, I’m not going to argue the claim that, at that point, alright was an incorrect variant spelling of all right, although I do believe he is wrong about that. Instead, let’s look at his claim of that alright is “illogical”. Six of the seven paragraphs of Partridge’s entry on alright are from a 1938 letter to The Observer, which Partridge quotes without stating what it is intended to show. The letter is informative in a way that Partridge’s opinions are not, discussing the process of single words being formed from multiple words, and actually bothering to justify (some of) its positions. Let me reproduce just the concluding paragraph of the letter; the rest of the letter gives the evidence for the opinion the writer holds:

“I have personally no doubt that there is a single word alright, with a somewhat fluid meaning, but distinct from that of all right. This word, however, is a colloquialism, very convenient in everyday intercourse but of no importance whatever in literary composition. I find that I use it regularly in ordinary conversation, but never have occasion to write it except in familiar correspondence. When I do write it, I spell it as two words!”

Of course, I’d dispute the claim that alright is of no literary importance, and I don’t understand why the author would write it as two words, given the lengths he goes to in the letter to establish that it is a single word, but those are just quibbles. The key point here is that Partridge asserts that alright is illogical, then quotes, without comment, a six-paragraph letter establishing that, actually, alright is a perfectly logical word. There’s even a point in the letter in which the author says “Obviously, if alright represents a compound word which actually exists, it has a certain justification.” (That justification having been given just before.) Partridge could as well have said “The Sun revolves around the Earth” and then cited Copernicus. Sure, Partridge might have an argument somewhere up his sleeve that alright really is illogical, but he omits that argument and instead delivers its exact antithesis. That, I believe, is an example of an illogical formulation. Alright is not.

It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if prescriptivists believe that illogical is a generic adjective meaning “bad for some unspecifiable reason”, much in the same way that they complain about us kids using cool or nice as a generic adjective for something pleasant. Given the prescriptivist penchant for insisting that words must have very clearly defined meanings and their obsession with precision in language, it just seems weird how cavalierly they toss illogical about.

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