Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

You will encounter many challenges when you go from a spoken language to a written language. There are so many words that we utter in everyday speech that many of us don’t necessarily know how to spell. Segway and segue are a good example of this. Another example is are the terms “all right” (two words) and “alright” (one word). Which is correct?

The Kids Are All Right

The short answer is that “alright” is technically not a word. Of course, it gets much more complicated than that.

“Alright” as a single word has quickly risen in popularity in the last 100 or so years, so much so that it has entered the common vernacular and tons of regular folk will think that “all right” as two words looks a little strange. If you ask the purists, they’ll tell you that it is never acceptable to write “alright” and that you should always use “all right” if that’s the term you want to use. This is still largely true when it comes to formal writing, but “alright” in more casual writing will be accepted by most. That said, you should probably avoid both “alright” and “all right” in formal writing altogether.

Interestingly, pop culture has taken a somewhat divided approach to the matter. The Who have a song called “The Kids Are Alright” and the Offspring played off that years later with “The Kids Aren’t Alright.” Then again, there is the 2010 film with Julianne Moor and Annette Bening titled The Kids Are All Right.

Which Meanings Are Alright?

Whether you use “all right” or “alright,” you’ll find three main definitions for the term.

  1. For emphasis or to express certainty: “That’s the thief all right” effectively translates as “I am very certain that is the thief.”
  2. To say something is adequate or satisfactory: I guess this hamburger is all right. He sustained some minor injuries, but he should be alright in a few days.
  3. Expressing agreement or acceptance: Alright, if you must know, Jimmy did leave class early.

In the first two cases, you can see how “all right” and “alright” can almost be used interchangeably, but I’d find it strange to use “all right” in the third instance, even if it is technically correct. To make matters even more confusing, the connotation of a sentence can change if you use one or the other.

  • Your answers to the test questions were alright.
  • Your answers to the test questions were all right.

The first sentence seems to indicate that your answers were “just okay” or satisfactory. They’re neither exceptionally good nor particularly bad. You might get a score of 70%, for instance: a solid pass. However, the second sentence seems to indicate that your answers were completely correct. In that case, you might expect a grade of 100%: absolute perfection.

What About All the Other All Words?

Strictly speaking, “alright” is not a real word, but it can largely be used interchangeably with the more correct “all right” (two words). The fundamental meaning is the same. This isn’t necessarily the case with other words that take on a similar kind of construction.

Earlier in this post, I used the word “altogether” to mean “entirely” or “completely.” If you were to break up the term into two words — “all together” — then the meaning shifts to mean to a group acting in a collective fashion: The children left the classroom all together. They didn’t leave one by one or in a number of smaller groups. All of the children left the classroom as one big group. Together. “The children left the classroom altogether” has a different meaning; the children completely left the classroom, as opposed to only leaving partway.

The terms “already” and “all ready” are also different. “Already” refers to something that had previously happened. Joe bought lunch already, so don’t make him a sandwich. By contrast, “all ready” would mean that the entire group is prepared. The students are all ready for summer is equivalent to All the students are ready for summer.

Enough Is Enough Already

English is an incredibly tricky language and it’s one that continues to evolve. What may be considered improper, nonstandard or outright wrong one day may become the accepted common vernacular the next. Such is the case with “alright” for most of casual speech and casual writing, but you should probably still avoid it in more formal writing, just as you probably wouldn’t use “OK” or “okay” in a press release, academic essay or curriculum vitae.

It is always best to err on the side of caution if you want to avoid the chipped coffee cup syndrome. Remember that good grammar, correct spelling and the right use of punctuation can go a long way, alright?