Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Are the Kids "Alright" or "All Right"?

The new film The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, owes an obvious debt of gratitude to The Who, even though the band's music doesn't appear on the soundtrack. The title is lifted from a classic song from The Who's 1965 debut album, which also served as the title of a 1979 documentary about the band. Discerning readers will notice a small but important difference: the song and the documentary were spelled "The Kids Are Alright." Did Cholodenko "correct" The Who's spelling?

An interview with Cholodenko on the movie website Comingsoon.net explains the change in spelling:

CS: Did the title come to you very early on in the writing?
Cholodenko: It did. It was more like a working title and I never thought we'd end up with it, but it just kept feeling resonant, so I thought, "You know, stick it on there and see if it passes, and if The Who is not going to sue me, then we'll use it."

CS: When you hear "The Kids Are All Right," you expect it to be spelled with one 'l' and being one word, but the way it's spelled has a very different meaning. Was that something you toyed around with or was that just the way it was and that worked?
Cholodenko: No, it was partly because of the copyright and partly because we liked the double entendre of it.

Cholodenko's choice of title, then, had nothing to do with the sense held by many that alright is an incorrect form of all right. But in changing the spelling, she might have spared herself some grief from the likes of Nathan Heller, who writes the "Copy-Editing the Culture" series for Slate's Brow Beat blog. Heller recently took the makers of the film Grown Ups to task for omitting the hyphen in the title. (Jules Feiffer actually spelled it the exact same way in the title of a 1981 play, in an offering that was a bit more highbrow than that of Adam Sandler and company.)

Titling Cholodenko's movie The Kids Are Alright might have raised similar hackles, regardless of the precedent set by The Who. Copy editors have yet to warm up to alright, despite its documented use in informal English for well over a century, modeled on words like already and altogether. As Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter (and occasional Visual Thesaurus contributor), told The New York Times in 2006, "all right is still a two-word locution. We do have a higher tolerance for creative spellings in creative spheres, although [the Who song] 'The Kids Are Alright' gave everyone permission to spell it wrong."

The history of all right vs. alright is far too complex to go into here, but you can find the full story in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. According to MWDEU, the alright spelling has attracted enmity from copy editors and usage writers since the early twentieth century. (It is said that H.L. Mencken made Theodore Dreiser change his use of alright in the manuscript for his 1914 novel The "Genius.") Proponents of alright have argued that it is semantically distinct from all right, though the exact nature of that distinction is very much open to interpretation.

Cholodenko seems to be playing on the perceived difference between alright and all right when she says that "we liked the double entendre of it." What additional meaning does all right provide that would have been absent from alright? I don't think it's that "all the kids are right" in the film. After all, there are only two kids in question: the children of a lesbian couple who go in search of their biological father. Rather, as Cholodenko told the San Francisco Bay Guardian, "it's sort of an ironic title, in the sense that the kids are kind of doing better than the moms." She also suggests that it's a form of social commentary responding to those who worry about gay people raising "psychologically healthy children": "The kids are fine. Don't worry about them. They're just right."

Do you think alright is all wrong? And do you find it has a difference in meaning from all right? Let us know in the comments below!


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 20th 2010, 7:48 AM
Comment by: Mark A. (Bexley, OH)
One difference between "all right" and "alright" is the ability of "all right" to quantify. How many are right? All of them. "Alright" is more likely to be used to mean not really all right, but pretty good." During a discussion on Twitter a few months ago, one person offered: “I’ve graded some tests and papers that were alright; definitely not all right.”

"Alright" might have come along too late to gain acceptance, but it's one of our least-offensive nonstandard words. I wrote a blog entry on the topic that seems to be very popular with people who stumble across it looking for The Who, Elton John, or Christopher Cross: http://bit.ly/d01ubD.
Tuesday July 20th 2010, 8:19 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
As a child, I won a spelling bee, spelling the word as two words. I stand by that.
Tuesday July 20th 2010, 9:37 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
Mark has a point about the ability of disjoined all right to quantify, and the Twitter example was illustrative.

But I still find it intriguing that the director affirmed so confidently that there was a double entendre at work in the title. Perhaps the movie plays with the word right, and so one would have to see it to appreciate the double entendre (and I haven't seen it yet). At the end of the article, Ben points to the fact that it's a lesbian couple raising these children, and so--perhaps--we are meant to see right as a sly substitute for straight? Thus: Don't worry, the kids are okay; besides, they are straight. (Which they seem to be from the previews.)
Tuesday July 20th 2010, 9:48 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
The distinction seems to be between "right" meaning "correct" and "right" meaning "fine, OK". But "right" never means "fine" unless it is accompanied by "all": If asked "How are you?" you would never answer "I'm right." People seem to want to merge "all" and "right" to force "right" to mean "fine" where it could be open to misinterpretation if it were left floating next to a separate "all." But in my mind, "all right" isn't really open to misinterpretation as "completely correct" without specific contextual clues.

That said, I have always thought that "alright" was a mistake... although, god almighty, it's already so far along the path to common usage that we might as well accept it.
Tuesday July 20th 2010, 9:51 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I'm glad Cholodenko used the two-word spelling, but she was misinformed about copyright law. Copyright does not protect titles; it protects only the works themselves. http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-protect. In fact, song and album titles are routinely recycled as movie titles. Here's a partial list: http://www.amiright.com/names/movie-song-title-named/
Tuesday July 20th 2010, 10:19 AM
Comment by: soledad (IL)
Honestly, I think Cholodenko's intent in making the film was to infuse a highly explosive issue into a dramatic, happy-ending story format, which is a big arc around which "Holly Wood" spins. I think she had no real grammatical or semantic clue as to her final usage of "All Right" vs. "Alright" and threw in the explanations about copyright and double entendre to sound more intellectually vigorous about her title choice. Why else wouldn't she know, or her people know, as Nancy Friedman points out, that Cholodenko's copyright usage claim falls flat?
Tuesday July 20th 2010, 10:43 AM
Comment by: Stephen B.
Someone says, "How are you?" You say, "I'm alright." This means that you are fair-to-middling, not bad off but not spectacular, or less than great but nothing to complain about. If things are fabulous, couldn't be better, or everything has come up roses, you might say, "I'm all right!" Since the matter is up for grabs, a person reading my comment may think, "That's alright," or "That's all right." This controversy has given me a headache. I think I'll go take a nap. I hope that's alright -- or all right -- with you depending on your point of view.
Tuesday July 12th 2011, 4:51 PM
Comment by: Aratrika G.
I am learning a lot of things just by reading this

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