Why We Aren’t All Right With Alright

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March 14 2014 12:16 PM

Why We Aren’t All Right With Alright

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All right, all right, all right.

Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Thanks to his Oscar win, his buzzy HBO series, and a recently resurfaced 2011 interview on a Canadian talk show, Matthew McConaughey’s beloved catchphrase from 1993’s cult favorite Dazed and Confused is all over the place once again. This is all right with me. But is it alright?  

Here at Slate we use the AP Stylebook, which takes a clear stance on the matter: “all right (adv.). Never alright. Hyphenate only if used colloquially as a compound modifier: He is an all-right guy.” Matthew McConaughey is definitely an all-right guy, but is it all right for him to say alright? Is that even what he’s saying?

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The all right vs. alright question is surprisingly complicated, as Merrill Perlman learned when she tried to solve it in the Columbia Journalism Review back in 2008. “Alright started life in Middle English as one word and split soon after,” Perlman writes, “though all right fell from use for quite some time.” In fact, though, the Oxford English Dictionary makes a clear distinction between the two similar but differently spelled phrases, listing three definitions for alright, all of which are adverbs, and not one of which seems to be in modern use.

  1. Exactly, just. Chiefly modifying so.
  2. Used for emphasis with prepositions and prepositional phrases.
    a. Entirely, completely, fully, quite.
    b. All the way, straight.
  3. Straightaway, at once.

These are different from the definitions provided for all right, which can be an adjective as well as an adverb—and even, apparently, a noun, at least in the U.K. (“This does seem a piece of all right, doesn’t it?” someone asks in 1922’s Kingfisher by Phyllis Bottome. I’ve never heard that particular usage, but that’s all right.) The most important all right definitions for our purposes are the adjective, which means “satisfactory, good, or in good order,” and the interjection: “Expressing that all is satisfactory or in good order. In later use chiefly used to offer comfort or support: ‘everything is all right.’ ” (In his explanation of the catchphrase, McConaughey says he thought of it as, essentially, a checklist of four things: car, all right; getting high, all right; rock ’n’ roll, all right; chicks, all right?)

I emailed Jesse Sheidlower, president of the American Dialect Society, and he explained that the medieval alright and our contemporary use of that word are “effectively unrelated.”* The alright variant that we know and that some people love today arose in the 19th century and is traditionally regarded as an error—though it’s not clear to him why it’s so strongly objected to by copy editors like me; after all, people are altogether fine with other similar constructions, and many have already moved on.

That’s true, of course: Language is constantly evolving. (In her piece, Perlman points out that James Joyce used alright in Ulysses, as did Gertrude Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, though she notes that both writers might be “described as paragons of nonstandard English.”) But altogether has different meanings (ones I’m altogether fine with) from all together (“all together now!”). The same is true of already and all ready.

So until we decide to make alright mean one thing, and all right some altogether different thing, it does not make sense to use different spellings. All right?

Correction, March 14, 2014: This post originally misstated that Jesse Sheidlower is the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. He is no longer at the OED.

Miriam Krule is a Slate assistant editor.