Is it ever all right to use “alright”?
When even native speakers can’t agree on the usage of a word in English, what in the world do we teach our students? When I was young, my teachers taught me that it was fine to use alright. I’ve seen it in print over the years and used it myself countless times. I’ve also used it with my students when I was an English teacher. So imagine my surprise, when I was studying to become an editor, when I learned that alright is a term best avoided! According to many grammar sticklers, the “correct” spelling is always all right. Is this what we should be teaching English language learners? Let’s take a deeper look into this debate.
History & similar cases
Both all right and alright have been in use for over a century, but that’s also almost as long as there has been a controversy, too. All right first appeared as a two-word spelling, much like all together, all ready, etc. But over time, many such words assumed a logical, practical one-word form. In fact, the two-word versions even have different meanings nowadays. Consider the following:
- We’ve already studied that. (previously done)
- Are we all ready to go? (all of us prepared)
- Let’s avoid the situation altogether. (completely)
- Let’s sing all together. (all of us at the same time)
It follows that alright and all right should follow a similar pattern:
- Is it alright if I bring a friend? (okay, acceptable)
- The answers were all right. (all correct)
However, “Is it all right if I bring a friend?” is not only correct as well, but more accepted. All right is far more common in literature and formal writing. Alright appears in newspapers, magazines, and other types of informal writing.
What do dictionaries and style guides have to say?
Merriam-Webster Online has an entry for alright, and explains that it is common, especially in informal writing and fictional dialogue. Oxford Dictionaries Online lists alright as a variant for all right. My copy of the Oxford Canadian Dictionary has no entry for alright.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition (section 5.220), says to avoid alright and always use the two-word form, all right.
A Google Ngram viewer of alright vs. all right shows that all right appears much more frequently in books than alright.
In researching these two forms, I read over and over that though all right is the more acceptable form, there is no logical reason not to use alright, and its use is on the rise.
So what should we teach our students? For lower-level students, my advice is to teach them the two-word form since it’s always considered correct. For higher-level students, teach them both forms and explain that alright is informal and all right is more formal. For formal, academic writing, it is probably best to stick to all right, but when they’re emailing or texting their friends, alright is just fine.
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