Is It All Right To Use "Alright"?

English is notorious for its baffling spelling rules and its seemingly capricious and arbitrary differentiations as to what is correct and incorrect. I am thinking specifically of "all right" and "alright."

Native speakers of English often spell "all right" as "alright." For instance, the British group the Who released a song called 'The Kids are Alright' (also used as the title of a British-made documentary about the group). Nevertheless, many people (including me) have been taught that "alright" is not a word and that it should always be written "all right."

For instance, an article intended to prepare candidates for the SAT university entrance exam advises that "Alright is all wrong. Use the two-word form, all right." Similarly, a website listing commonly confused English words dictates "All right. NEVER alright."

It's not that simple, though. After all, English has the acceptable pairs "all together" and "altogether," as well as "all ready" and "already." So why not "all right" and "alright"? Apparently "alright" and "all right" have both had a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't existence, and despite the efforts of prescriptionists to banish "alright" to the linguistic corner, it frequently creeps up in well-respected journalism and literary works.

The SAT Prep article continues:

this requires a bit of explanation. Alright is now widely used, particularly in informal settings such as blogs, emails, text messages, instant messages, tweets, and even some classrooms. Many well-known writers, including James Joyce and Langston Hughes, have used it in literature. It is ubiquitous in written dialog and, sadly, in student papers.

In fact, according to Merriam-Webster Online, the single word alright has been in use since 1887.
The two-word phrase all right was used more than five hundred years ago, spelled al right by Chaucer around the year 1385. The word fell out of favor, then returned to common usage later, when Percy Bysshe Shelley employed it in Scenes from Goethe's Faust.

In any case, all right is the much older form. It remains the standard for use in formal writing today. Alright should be used, if at all, only in informal writing.
I scratch my head and wonder about this logic. If "all right" (written as "al right") was used in the 14th century, only to vanish for roughly 400 years and subsequently reappear as "all right," followed a mere few decades later by "alright," how did "alright" become entirely incorrect instead of just a less common variant? Was it simply a case of "the fastest spelling wins the race"?

There does not, to my mind, seem to be a rational reason why one spelling should be regarded as incorrect especially since both have been widely used by English speakers of varying levels of education and literacy. The notion of incorrect vs. correct seems due to narrow-minded convention ("we spell it this way to not offend any fussy English teachers out there") rather than being founded on any linguistic basis. The flimsiness of the "alright" ban may be why such dictionaries as the American Heritage Dictionary now (as of 1996) list "alright" as an alternate spelling rather than a misspelling. Still, "old-school" teachers and editors may wince and continue to perceive it as incorrect, hence prompting the word of caution in the SAT Prep article.

It makes me wonder who decides the rules of natural language-average speakers who actually speak and write natural languages or small groups of elitist prescriptionists who have an idealized view of how we "should" speak and write, whether the issue is "alright" vs. "all right," a split infinitive, or a preposition precariously placed at the end of a question.

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

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