Sunday, January 25, 2009

I want you to think about this word.


I was browsing the internet tonight; looking up definitions, as I often do, and I started thinking about something I'd read in On Writing Well by Zinsser. He says, in the 25th anniversary printing of the book, that we shouldn't use the word "alright." It's sloppy, he says, it's a made-up word. (You'll notice I don't have quotes around those paraphrasings, because I'm pretty sure that I'm grossly misquoting him. Also, don't use the word "paraphrasings," because I'm pretty sure I just made it up.)

This whole thing came about as I was writing an email. I came to a situation in which I would either use "alright" or, the apparently more proper version, "all right," and couldn't think my way out of the impasse. My initial instinct was to just go for the more colloquial version, leaving out an l and a space for the sake of succinctness. But there's this other part of me, the part of me that uses words like "succinctness," that cried out in favor of the proper usage.

Once again, I turned to google to save the day. I wanted to know the final verdict on these two uses, and the internet hive mind was my best chance. So I clicked on this link, trying to find the answer, but initially received nothing of the sort.

What I had found, found in the paragraph below the definition, blew my mind. I'll quote it directly from the MW website:

"usage The one-word spelling alright appeared some 75 years after all right itself had reappeared from a 400-year-long absence. Since the early 20th century some critics have insisted alright is wrong, but it has its defenders and its users. It is less frequent than all rightalright — Gertrude Stein>. but remains in common use especially in journalistic and business publications. It is quite common in fictional dialogue, and is used occasionally in other writing"

Like I said before, this blew my mind. It told me a few things: that "all right" was indeed the proper usage, that the writers of this dictionary had too much free time, and that for FOUR HUNDRED YEARS, people did not use (at least in writing) the phrase "all right."

This blew my mind. This means, are you with me?, that some time in the 13th century...somebody, probably a monk, it's always a monk writing things back then, said, "Yeah, the bible's all right, but do I really have to sit and transcribe it all day?"

Then. FOUR HUNDRED YEARS pass before that phrase is written again.

Think of how awful it must feel to be that guy, starting a new catchphrase (he was probably really proud of it, too) and he's not able to see the phrase used again within his lifetime. It was this line of thinking, ladies and gentlemen, that enabled me to finally make my choice. I'm going to honor whoever it was that first used "all right" by using only the proper version, not the cheap, bastardization conceived after 75 years of proper use.

And the next time you use "alright" in an email, you'll think of that person, spinning literarily in their grave.

(good news everyone, it seems that literarily is also a word!)


  1. alright all ready!

    Talk about making stuff up... is it weird that the words "alright" and "all right" have different meanings to me, that um, I assumed was based on reality, but apparently not so much.

  2. Well, until I looked this up today I felt the same way. But when I really looked at it, the word "alright" is nothing more than a contraction of the original "all right."

    To provide another example of this, think about the word "none," which is really just a contraction of "not one." I would definitely use these phrases in different places, but technically, they're interchangeable.