But It’s Alright

Alright may not be all wrong

It’s never all right to use “alright,” right?

Let’s discuss, already.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says it best: “All right is the only spelling Standard English recognizes.”

“Standard English,” of course, is that which is acceptable in polite company, meaning if you want to be taken altogether seriously. Yet “alright” shows up an awful lot in the mainstream media (meaning polite company) for something that is “nonstandard English.”

Some will say that the “misuse” of “alright” began with the 1965 Pete Townshend song “The Kids Are Alright,” but the first modern citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1893. Since then, “alright” has appeared frequently in song lyrics and titles, casual writing and popular culture references, causing much teeth grinding for generations of English teachers and grammarians. Many people don’t even realize that it’s disputed usage, and it’s not historically wrong: “Alright” started life in Middle English as one word and split soon after, though “all right” fell from use for quite some time.

Nowadays, in polite company “alright” appears most frequently in quotations. That’s a curious distinction, because no one spells what is being spoken, and “all right” and “alright” are pronounced the same, not like “going to” and “gonna,” another dialogue inhabitant. In fact, if one were going to render “alright” phonetically, it would probably be closer to “awright.” It’s as if writers as a group have decided that “alright” is dialect, and thus exempt from the rules of standard English. (James Joyce used “alright” multiple times in Ulysses and Gertrude Stein used it in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, both of which might be described as paragons of nonstandard English.) Many transcripts use it, as do articles written with a personal “voice.”

Even so, the Associated Press stylebook bars its usage, as do most major dictionaries. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged is more lenient, calling it “in reputable use” but frowned upon.

If you want a frown to be your umbrella, it’s alright by me. But only if you quote me.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.