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It's Alright

The best thing about being a teacher is actually that being a student--i.e., acquiring knowledge and entertaining complex questions--is part of the job.

Case in point, here's an email from a student I received this summer that I had entirely too much fun answering.

QUESTION FROM: A FORMER ENGLISH STUDENT

This is a bit random, but what are your thoughts on the word ‘alright’? My mom is an author and has it in her book a bunch, but editors have said that it’s not grammatically correct to use the word, and a lot of the internet says that ‘alright’ isn’t even a legitimate English word. I can’t wrap my head around that, so is that something you agree with? Just wondering your thoughts because I’m curious about the whole idea of the word not being legitimate.

ANSWER FROM: A PERPETUAL LOGOPHILE

Erin McKean has some perspective for you! She’s passionate about lexicography—capturing language use rather than dictating it. With her philosophy, I’m confident she’s as down with “alright” as Matthew McConaughey. Short answer? I agree with her.

However, the people like Philip B. Corbett, the standards editor at at New York Times, is adhering to certain conventions and “rules” of style—as are your mom’s editors. They are the inheritors, maintainers, and arbiters of prestigious style. These folks are usually at least 25 years behind on otherwise popular parlance—I see words in those publications retain hyphens (“e-mail”) and distinctions (see what Strunk and White say about persons vs. people—it is a useful distinction I’m sad to see die, but here we are) I practically consider long-retired or relaxed.

I see a distinction between “alright” as adverb and “all right” as adjective in the MW which I’d not yet pondered. I tend to be a fan of these fine-line distinctions, because I think they might clarify. As in, “Language! It’s weird alright, but that’s all right.”

But they also can feel like keys into (or locks preventing admittance to) a club of fullest access and understanding. Indeed, with more language creativity and less reliance on respectability conventions, editors may not become totally obsolete, but something that’s still considered an essential part of their service falls away. I see a trend in college level academic writing toward the vernacular including dialects, especially as an anti-racist statement. i.e., a thesis written in Nigerian Pidgin English rather than adhering further to conventions dictated by historically, predominantly white writers and institutions with colonial origins. It’s a way of combating hegemony.

Your training about SPACE CAT comes in handy in such considerations. It comes down to audience and purpose. If the purpose is to be taken seriously in literary circles, such distinctions might matter. If the point is to convey the message in as authentic-as-possible vernacular? Editor, bye. If the word “Alright” is essential to the work (I go back to the idea of McConaughey and imagine his autobiography), then changing it for the sake of convention could be the wrong move.

And now that I’ve based so much of my analysis on my assumed spelling of the catchphrase from DAZED AND CONFUSED, dangit if USA Today’s editors haven’t given the phrase the “proper” treatment here and distinguished it from what they might call the phonetic version: Article Link

It was someone’s job to make sure that space was there. In twenty-five years, it could be someone’s job to be sure and remove that space.

And that’s... okay! OK? O.K.

It’s fine with me as long as the value pursued is clarity rather than exclusivity.

©2018 by Kelby A. Siddons

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