It's alright to be wrong about all right
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PETER TRUDGILL picks apart another popular subject for pedants
Are you alright? Or are you all right? Is alright one word or two? A number of people seem to feel rather strongly about this issue, and some of them are adamant that to write alright is totally not all right.
They think that all right is the only “correct” way to write it , and many usage manuals support this point of view. What is not clear to me, however, is why – what could possibly be wrong with writing alright as one word?
What the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about alright is very interesting and revealing – and, as you would expect from our national dictionary, sensible.
It does give the main entry as all right, but then states that: “The form alright is frequent, although more widespread in non-literary printed sources (e.g. newspapers and journals) than in literary texts. Compare the standard spellings of already, altogether, always. Although these analogues exist, the form is strongly criticised in the vast majority of usage guides, but without cogent reasons.”
It is that last phrase which interests me. People object to the spelling alright, but they give absolutely no justification, cogent or otherwise, for their objection – and I suspect that that is because they are unable to think of one. The experts at the Oxford English Dictionary cannot think of any justification either.
I can certainly, though, think of a justification for writing alright. This is that all right and alright can actually have different meanings. There is a clear distinction between “They are all right”, meaning that all of them are correct; and “They are alright”, meaning they are OK. That difference would be concealed if we wrote the two forms identically.
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It is interesting to consider, then, why anyone would find fault with alright. Nobody argues that we should write although, always, altogether and albeit as all though, all ways, all together and all be it. And even a thousand years ago, Anglo Saxon scribes were writing alright as one word.
Surely it is obvious to most native speakers of English, when we think about it, that alright really is a single word? The most common colloquial pronunciation of the word, as “oright”, helps to confirm this point, too.
It is true that if you go far enough back in time, alright did originate as a combination of the two words all and right. But the words already and although also developed out of all plus ready and all plus though. And indeed the word also, which I have just used, was originally all plus so if we go far enough back in time. The word indeed, which I also just used, was normally written as in deed up until the 1600s.
It is a very common process as languages change – as they always do – for two words in a fixed expression to merge into one. The words newspaper and widespread, as they appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary entry which I quoted at the beginning of this piece, were both also originally two words, news paper and wide spread.
Week end similarly became week-end and then weekend. Black bird became black-bird and then blackbird. And changes of meaning have gone along with these developments too: weekend does not mean simply ‘the end of the week’. And black bird and blackbird do not mean the same thing. A male blackbird is indeed a black bird, but most black birds are not blackbirds.
The technical linguistic term for this rather common process whereby two words such as all though are merged into a single word like although is univerbation.
Univerbation can also bring about the merging of three-word combinations into single words, as in the case of albeit, nevertheless, nonetheless and notwithstanding.
Univerbation is such a very normal linguistic process that it must surely be alright for us to write alright if we want to.
The word merge comes from the Latin verb mergere, ‘to dive, dip’. Traces of this original meaning are easier to detect in Modern English in compound words such as submerge, ‘to cause to sink below the surface’, and emerge, which was originally ‘to come out of having been immersed in liquid’.
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