10 April 2008

Alright Already!

Loath as I am to disagree with John Scalzi, I must note a difference of opinion with regard to the word "alright", which John proclaims is not even a word. And he thinks it's ugly.

Whether it is ugly is a matter of taste, and I shan't argue that. Whether it is a word, though ... well, it's definitely a word, since it has boundaries and is used to convey meaning, though I will grant that most American dictionaries of English do not accept it as part of formal, standard English yet.

I will also say here that I use the word "alright" much more often than I use the words "all right", and when an occasional copyeditor changes my alrights to all rights, I change 'em right back whenever possible. (Usually my sometimes-British/ sometimes-American punctuation distracts copyeditors from my other idiosyncracies, but not always.)

In terms of grammar, usage, style, orthography, etc., I am a radical liberal. I teach my students standard English, but also encourage them to make innovations whenever possible. I tell them they must learn standard English not because it is inherently better than anything else, but because pedants will yap at them, and they need to be able to defend their choices. Few things make people more pedantic than grammar, style, and usage, and most of the yaps of pedants are nothing more than pet peeves. We're all welcome to our pet peeves, and I certainly have some ("loathe" for "loath" annoys me, as does "disinterested" for "uninterested" -- the latter I can justify as a useful distinction, though), but I try to let my desire for a lively and vivid language overcome my occasional desire to battle the barbarians. And I have little problem with people deviating from standard English by choice. I wish more people did so, in fact.

Thus, I am stating here and now, in a public forum, that when I use "alright" I mean "alright" and not "all right". Sometimes, in fact, I use both, because I like the distinction that can be made between them, as pointed out by a commenter at this post who says:
The prosodic pattern of the two differs. In alright they are written as one word because they are articulated as one word, initial stress on ‘all’ while ‘right’ is unstressed. In all right the ‘right’ element gets stressed instead as it is the head of the constituent -- an adjective phrase, with ‘all’ as its specifier.
(I first decided to use both forms when I was writing plays, because I hear the two quite differently, and I wanted actors to be able to make a distinction.)

And here's a quote I'm stealing outright from this excellent overview of the controversy -- the quote comes from The Cambridge Guide to English Usage:
The spelling alright is controversial for emotional rather than linguistic or logical reasons. It was condemned by Fowler in a 1924 tract for the Society for Pure English, despite recognition in the Oxford Dictionary (1884-1298) as increasingly current. But the fury rather than the facts of usage seem to have prevailed with most usage commentators since. [...] Dictionaries which simply crossreference alright to all right (as the “proper” form) typically underrepresent its various shades of meaning as a discourse symbol. It may be concessive, as in Alright, I’ll come with you—or diffident, as in How’re things? Oh alright—or impatient as in Alright, alright!. None of these senses are helpfully written as all right, which injects the distracting sense of “all correct.” Those who would do away with alright prefer to ignore its various analogues, such as almost, already, also, although, altogether, always, which have all over the centuries merged into single words. Objections to alright are rarely justified, as Webster’s English Usage (1989) notes, and Burchfield (1996) only makes a shibboleth of it. [...] At the turn of the millennium, alright is there to be used without any second thoughts.
I'm a devoted reader of The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and the entry for alright, all right takes up nearly two double-columned pages. Here are some tidbits: the first OED citation of the word in a context that seems similar to current use is Chaucer's "Criseyde was this lady name al right". Moving beyond Middle English we have a long gap where any form of the word(s) is unrecorded with its current sense until Percy Shelley in 1822 (where it is "That was all right, my friend"). "Alright" doesn't appear until 1893 (in the Durham University Journal). The Dictionary notes:
Alright did not appear in a Merriam-Webster dictionary until 1934, but several dictionary users had spotted its omission earlier and had written to us to urge its inclusion.
They cite a letter from "a New York businessman named William E. Scott" from September 25, 1913:
I wish you would submit to your experts the feasibility of putting the word alright into use. As a matter of fact it is used quite extensively without the authority of dictionaries because it is the quick common-sense way of doing. The cable and telegraph companies are the ones who profit by the lack of an authoritative ruling that alright is synonymous with all right
The Dictionary points out the argument for the different emphasis when speaking "alright" and "all right" and notes that that may explain why, when it is found in books, it is most often found in printed dialogue. Finally, they note that it seems to be more accepted by the British than the Yanks -- it is, they note, "the standard spelling in Punch, and the King's Printer at Ottawa officially sanctioned its use as far back as 1928. The OED Supplement calls it simply 'a frequent spelling of all right" They conclude: "It is clearly standard in general prose, but is widely condemned nonetheless by writers on usage."

Finally, two writers I don't mind having as predecessors:
...however alright well seen then let him go to her...
--James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922

A success, a success is alright when there are there rooms and no vacancies, a success is alright when there is a package, success is alright anyway and any curtain is wholesale.
--Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, 1914

13 comments:

  1. I am now going to observe a moment of silence for myself.

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  2. I admit that I have a hard time taking a grammar authority seriously when it uses the construction "None of these... are". But then, I am a second-generation pedant, and quite aware of my position all the way out at one end of the giving-a-damn bell curve.

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  3. Alas, Rose, you and the MW Dictionary of English Usage shall forever be enemies. If you're ever at a social event where it's hanging out, it's probably best to stay away, lest you both end up screaming at each other through the night.

    The Dictionary begins its page-and-a-half entry for the word "none" with: "A specter is haunting English usage -- the specter of the singular none" and then goes on to ... well, I was going to say debunk but ... goes on to challenge the idea that such a rule is meaningful, even to the point of snarkily quoting the 1972 edition of Strunk & White: "None are as fallible as those who are sure they are right." They conclude: "Clearly, none has been both singular and plural since Old English and still is. The notion that it is singular only is a myth of unknown origin that appears to have arisen late in the 19th century. If in context it seems like a singular to you, use a singular verb; if it seems like a plural, use a plural verb. Both are acceptable beyond serious criticism."

    I now expect to have to haul you out of bookstores lest you seek out any copy of the Dictionary that they have and burn it in a public ceremony, which may be the only way to preserve order in this anarchic universe of words...

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  4. I'm quite capable of maintaining an aloof, icy silence should the MWDoEU and I ever find ourselves thrown together; I would never resort to outright aggression, unless it and I were trapped on a desert island and I found myself desperate for kindling.

    I can even accept some uses of "None... are" (thus putting myself at risk of being disowned by my mother, who permits no such nuance). "None of these... are", however, is firmly on the wrong side of the line.

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  5. Consider this a vote for "ugly and never to be used non-ironically."

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  6. I am most partial to 'awright' myself. Depending on context it can have radically different meanings, and is also readily used as an adverb.

    --W. Safire

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  7. Exercising my command of la grammaire nouvelle, I must say that Mr. Safire's comment is the win.

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  8. Taking the heathenness a bit further, sometimes I believe it is perfectly acceptable, especially when transcribing a conversation, to contract it further to a'ight. But then again, I come from a place where triple modals are often used to great effect, so take my words with appropriate measures of salt?

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  9. Word. Words are words if they are used as words, OED be damned. What a ginormous grom.

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  10. So what about the word "aight," which seems to be increasingly popular?

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  11. So what about the word "aight," which seems to be increasingly popular?

    If I could settle on a way to spell it, I'd definitely use it. Actually, I always associate that word with one person -- a grizzled old teacher at my former school, who said it like the imprecation of a longshoreman. His students loved it, thinking he was somehow in touch with, I don't know, gangsta culture or something. In fact, he just had little use for the letters l and r.

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  12. I've never used "alright" because all of my English teachers told me it's not even a word. A journalism professor even threatened any offenders with an automatic "F" if he ever caught us using "alright."

    How do you feel about "OK" vs. "okay"? I'm partial to the latter, but habit wins out, at least for me.

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