Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Let "Alright" be All Right

I have a book of piano transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies by Franz Lizst, and in the introduction it talks about a change that Lizst made to one of the pieces. In the piece, as written for orchestra, there is a fleeting dischord that is quickly resolved. However, in transcribing these works for piano, Lizst changed that one dischord. Why? Because people would think that he had made a mistake while playing, and no one should ever think that the great Franz Lizst made a mistake at the piano. So even though the note may have been right, he changed it.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, it seems that part of the great debate over alright vs all right has to do with not wanting people to think that you’ve made a mistake. But more on that shortly.

I was first introduced to this debate in about eighth grade, when I wrote “alright” to indicate that something was OK (or should that be “okay”). That was immediately marked as being wrong, because “alright” was “not a word,” and what I meant to write was “all right.”

Actually, I most definitely did not mean to write “all right,” because I wasn’t saying that everything was right, I was saying that it was OK. To me “all right” meant “all correct” and “alright” meant that something was “just fine.” In other words, you can do alright on a quiz without getting the answers all right. Logically speaking, they were two different ideas, two different pronunciations, and therefore, two different spellings.

My teacher didn’t agree, and I caved for the moment, although I maintained for years…decades even…that it made no sense, and that we were unnecessarily confusing things by using the same spelling for two terms that mean totally different things.

And what is this “not a word” thing anyway? If you can spell it, and say it, and people agree on what it means, then not only is it a word, but it’s a perfectly cromulent one at that. Selfie is a word, so why isn’t alright considered one?

The answer has to do with our friend Franz Lizst. It’s not so much that it’s not a word, but that certain people in the language world will consider it to be a misspelling of all right, or worse, a misspelling that we’ve sadly allowed to finally have some legitimacy. Already (as opposed to all “all ready”) it’s considered a legitimate word in the game Words With Friends, and in the spell check function of Microsoft Word. Some language mavens say that it is a perfectly acceptable word for the circumstances I’ve mentioned, and is gaining more currency, but one should avoid using it so as not to upset those who still insist that it’s wrong, and have them sneer at us.

In other words, we are to be Franz Liszt, and change what is actually a correct note, so that people won’t think that we’re wrong.

But wait, something new has been added. In scouting the Internet for information on the Alright/All Right wars, I came across a page with an interesting question: Is it “alright” or “allright?” Aha! Maybe we’re onto something here, and this is where the real debate lies. Perhaps it’s not between the very different alright and all right, but between the easily confused alright, allright, and all right. In fact the answer on this page states that alright is an alternative spelling of all right, and allright is a common misspelling of both…sort of as if you couldn’t make up your mind which way you wanted to write it.

There are two types of lexicographers in the world (and I’m gonna make you look that word up): descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive lexicographers describe the language as it is, making note of changes as they happen, and accepting them easily once they reach a certain critical mass. Prescriptive lexicographers are the ones who are always fighting the battle of defending the Queen’s English against the encroachments of ungainly terms that people have been using for 100 years, but just not the “right people.”

Three guesses which type of lexicographer I am.

What would settle this issue once and for all would be if one of the “authorities” of language in this country…say The New York Times…would stop playing to the Franz Liszt crowd, and simply say in the manual of style what the rest of us descriptives already know: That alright and all right are two totally different terms, and both spellings are kosher when used properly.

Now…if we could just deal with the abhorrent practice of using women as an adjective, when it really should be female.

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