It's Not OK
by Cherie Tucker
We’ve talked about this one before, but it was early in the life of this magazine, so you may not have seen it, or you may be one of the willful who thought that since the language is always changing, you didn’t need to believe me. Let me repeat: all right is two words. Just like all wrong.
I bring this to you again because I’ve been reading a bestseller that is set in the early 60s. The author has a smash hit and weaves a terrific tale. But on nearly every page is the word alright. And every time it see it, I’m yanked out of the story. I am a voracious reader and love to be transported to times and places by deftly chosen prose. Authors usually do meticulous research to avoid spell-breaking anachronisms, but they may not be as aware that such anachronisms exist in our language. I don’t want King Arthur to say “OK.” It is because the language is always changing that writers—especially those who write of non-contemporary periods—must know what the language changed from. And when.
In the 60s the nuns still wore habits and wielded rulers to knock repentance out of recalcitrant students. All right misspelled as one word was a felony then, even in public schools. Papers came back with large red circles with the scrawled Sp on them. It is only recently that some writers have combined the two words into one, but they have not done so in scholarly or well-edited works.
There is a use for alright. If you wish to use it as a device to illustrate something about your character’s background, have that character write a note using alright. Your readers will automatically conclude that this character is not very well educated or is very young. Readers will not come to that conclusion about a character, however, if the rest of the work misspells all right, but they might make that judgment about the author.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference. She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com