Alright, folks, is alright all right? One of my clients, prompted by a heated discussion in one of her writing groups, recently asked my opinion on the topic.
The short answer: it depends. Let’s dive in and look at the details, so you can make an informed decision about what is right for your book.
If your character says ought, she will also say all right.
Bill Bryson’s uncharacteristically fussy pronouncement in The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words (1984): “alright continues to be looked on as illiterate and unacceptable and consequently it ought never to appear in serious writing.”
Merriam-Webster, which is the standard dictionary used by most traditional publishers, lists alright as an acceptable alternative spelling to all right,” though with the following note:
“Although the spelling alright is nearly as old as all right, some critics have insisted alright is all wrong. Nevertheless it has its defenders and its users, who perhaps have been influenced by analogy with altogether and already. It is less frequent than all right but remains common especially in informal writing. It is quite common in fictional dialogue and is sometimes found in more formal writing.”
Merriam-Webster leans toward descriptivism – meaning that they are interested in cataloguing language as it is used rather than as it should be used, which is the goal of prescriptivists. Bryan Garner, who leans more toward prescriptivism, rejects alright as an alternative spelling in his influential Modern American Usage.
Garner does attempt to track language that is in the process of changing, but I think he wrongly categorizes “alright” as at Stage 2, which he defines as the point when “[t]he form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.” I would place it at his Stage 3: “The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.”
Google Ngram shows a slow and steady rise for alright starting in the 1970s, and I think we’ll see that trend continue.
What does this mean in practice?
As an editor, if I come across alright in a nonfiction book, I will usually change it to all right. If it’s a self-help book or creative nonfiction with a less formal voice, I will explain the choice to the author and ask what they prefer.
For fiction, I take the same approach, paying attention to the tone and voice of both the narrator and the characters. If the narrative voice is formal, but there is a character who speaks informally, I might suggest using all right in the narrative and alright in dialogue for that character. I can even imagine a book in which all right, alright, and a’ight are all on the style sheet.
The wise John McIntyre (whose Twitter feed is a delight for word nerds) notes that Garner’s “aim is to show you what is necessary to write and speak as a literate adult for other literate adults in the American version of the dialect known as Standard English.” This specific dialect might not be appropriate for your book. McIntyre goes on to point out that the choice is yours: “As the writer or editor, you know who is in your audience and what level of diction is appropriate to both audience and occasion.”
Like much else in editing, context is key – alright?