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?
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!