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TWTS: We're not done talking about "alright," all right?

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Incorrect. Substandard. Unacceptable.

These are adjectives many of us would use to describe things like a filthy bathroom, sheets covered in stains, or a long-forgotten sandwich that has returned the bottom shelf of the breakroom refrigerator into a science experiment.

They're also some of the adjectives critics have used to describe the spelling of "all right" as one word: "alright."

Last week, we set out to find out why the spelling of "all right" as one word has spawned so much derision. We began by exploring the various ways in which "all right" is used, and found the list to be more extensive and fascinating than we'd anticipated. Overcome with word nerdery, we were unable to address our original question before running out of time. Thus, we have this "all right" sequel.

The spelling of "all right" as one word, "alright," was quickly condemned when it emerged in the late 19th century. The editors of the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage think H.W. Fowler's influential language guide Modern English Usage helped solidify this criticism in 1926. In it, Fowler wrote, "The words should always be written separate. There are no such forms as 'all-right,' 'allright,' and 'alright.'"

Based on that ruling, you may be wondering about words like "altogether," "already," and "although." It's likely that these words are older which means that their respective one-word spellings could be standardized. When "alright" came in during the late 19th century, it was immediately seen as nonstandard.

Curiously, the one-word spelling did make a brief appearance as adverb meaning "exactly" or "just," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. However, it died out only to remerge as a variant of "all right" and was quickly condemned.

Bryan Garner, author of another influential language guide, was among the "alright" naysayers. In the 2016 edition of Modern English Usage, Garner simply dismissed "alright" as bad usage. Interestingly, Garner had a change of heart in the 2022 edition. In a lengthy entry, he notes that "alright" is increasing in use, and that most people aren't even aware of the criticism it has received.

So what exactly is wrong with spelling "all right" as one word? Professor Anne Curzan sums it up this way: "The answer is that historically, we've said there's something wrong with it."

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.