Q&A: Alright vs all right

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we're all right about alright.

Q: Hi AWC, we had a question from Lynda this week. She noticed we had used the word “alright” in our Q&A and asked if it should be “all right”?

A: Good question.

Q: I thought so.

A: “All right” is a phrase so ubiquitous that we often forget that it is a phrase at all.

Q: Ironically, “ubiquitous” is not a very ubiquitous word, is it?

A: Haha, true. So “all right” can mean “good” (“you’re an all right bloke”), “safe” (“are you all right?”), to ask permission (“is it all right if I go?”) or even well (“your child is doing all right at school”).

Q: What about “all right, let’s do it”?

A: Yes, so there it’s being used as a filler for what’s about to come (similar to how “okay” is used). The same might be said in a game of hide and seek – “all right, ready or not, here I come!”

Q: My uncle Fred was national hide and seek champ for 12 years in a row.

A: Wow, impressive.

Q: Yeah. The cops finally caught him after a tip off though.

A: Um, okay. So, anyway, according to traditionalists, “all right” is the ONLY way you should ever spell this combination of words.

Q: But when I type “are you feeling all right?” in Google Docs, it gets a red wiggly line and suggests “alright”…

A: And yet if you type “are you feeling alright?” in Word, it will suggest “all right”…

Q: This is getting a bit messy.

A: Yep. In fact, ever since the 1880s, people have been trying to shorten the two-word phrase into “alright”. Google Docs is just the latest in a series of people who believe that “alright” is alright.

Q: Is it to do with the existence of words like “already” and “always”?

A: Highly likely. However, the difference with those words is that the single-word definitions are totally different from the two-word ones. For example, “all ready” means to be completely prepared (e.g. my assignment is all ready for marking) while “already” can mean soon in time (e.g. I have already finished my assignment). They’re not interchangeable.

Q: And “always” is similar?

A: Yes. “All ways” means every direction or option, while “always” means forever.

Q: So if Whitney Houston had sung “I will ALL WAYS love you”, it would have read more like a checklist of bedroom positions than a declaration of ongoing affection?

A: Exactly.

Q: Why is this important again?

A: It’s important because the people against using “alright” state that unlike those other words, “alright” has an identical meaning to “all right” – and is therefore unnecessary.

Q: But I see it used all the time. And WE even used it last week – prompting Lynda’s email!

A: That’s right. Many believe that it’s just fine to use “alright”, especially in an informal or dialogue setting – such as what we do here. Even the Macquarie Dictionary agrees.

Q: What do they say?

A: They have separate listings for “alright” and “all right” – with identical entries for each. They add this at the base of each entry: “Although alright has been a disputed usage for ‘all right', it is increasingly common in published writing.”

Q: Disputed territory huh…

A: Indeed. Clearly we believe that using “alright” is fine in this ever-changing lexical landscape. However, using “all right” is still needed for things like “she got the questions all right”.

Q: Good point.

A: Keeping it as two words can in fact add ambiguity. Consider, for example, a headline that reads “Donald Trump’s supporters are not all right” – it sounds harsh, but is likely to be a story about his supporters not all being conservative (“right wing”).

Q: Clever. So, is Lynda right or not?

A: In informal settings, we believe that “alright” has gained enough traction to be used – however, some remain staunchly against it in any context. For this reason, it would be wise to use “all right” for formal writing.

Q: Alright, thanks for the answer. Is it alright by you if I leave early today? I’ve been working part-time in a glove factory and our right glove machine has been making left gloves by mistake. I want to head in and make sure they’re all right.

A: Nice. Sounds like they could do with a safe pair of hands…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!


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