I have a confession to make about the previous post. Here I am imploring you against living your life only on the main thoroughfares of language usage, scared that if you turn down the wrong alleyway and dangle a participle you’ll be set upon by the local prescriptivist gangs. And yet in the summary of my last post, I chickened out myself and decided to use acceptable instead of alright, even though I meant alright and not acceptable, because I was concerned that it ought to have been all right.

This is not all right.

So, tail between my legs, I did some research about the usage of alright/all right. All right is always right. Strike that; all right is always acceptable. But to me, all right is not always best. Alright‘s first attestation in the OED is from 1897, and is in the Durham University Journal, so it’s got some cache. The OED does not condemn alright as you might expect; rather, it lists it as “a frequent spelling of all right“. No judgment passed, so I’ll keep using it.

I would write more about why I think alright is acceptable, but Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage really nails the point on page 79. (I am figuratively bursting with glee that this whole book is now available for free on Google Books!) Just to summarize the MWDEU argument, alright has appeared many times in print, and would appear more often were it not for the fervor with which editors unjustifiedly lop it out of their authors’ manuscripts.

So here’s my advice. All right is the only form that is unreservedly accepted by everyone; alright is an alternate spelling (probably on analogy with already and although) that arose in the 19th century and has stuck around despite the prescriptivists’ attempts to kill it off. In fact, I am glad to use both — all right represents unreserved support whereas alright is more a statement of passability:

(1) The new guy is all right. (=better than expected)
(2) The new guy is alright. (=good enough)

I’m willing to bet I generally use the two interchangeably, but occasionally I’ve started writing one and decided that the other would be a better choice. I don’t know if this is a distinction that only I make or if it holds for the general populace; unfortunately, it’s a very subtle distinction, so it’d take undue effort to research this. (And, lest you hadn’t figured it out yet, I’m lazy!)

Summary: All right and alright are both acceptable, although using alright might ruffle a few feathers. If you’re beset by a vocal critic of alright, direct them to the charming defense of it in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage.


The Inner Spaces series so far:
I: A lot about alot (10/24/07)
II: All right (10/26/07)
III: Can not be split? (10/27/07)
IV: It’s Been a While (01/14/08)