<< back to the archive list

September 5th, 2007

Alright vs. all right / premise vs. premises / police is vs. the police are

by Barbara Wallraff

Ann Christenson, of North Liberty, Iowa, writes: “I’ve long wanted to write you concerning ‘all right.’ My very fine high school English teacher back in the ’50s pointed out that as we would never write ‘alwrong,’ we have no reason to write ‘alright.’ Let’s stamp out ‘alright.’”

Dear Ann: I’m with you that “all right” is the spelling to use in anything even slightly formal. Dictionary entries for “alright” include words like “variant” and “disputed.” But I think we’d both better start preparing ourselves to give in gracefully in the future. What your English teacher didn’t mention is that “already” and “altogether” are long-accepted words on the same pattern as “alright.” “Already” doesn’t mean the same thing as “all ready,” “altogether” doesn’t mean “all together” — and “all right” doesn’t mean that all is right. It has a distinct meaning of its own, so it would make sense for it to have its own spelling. For now, though, the fact that “alright” is not standard and, depending on your point of view, looks either sloppy or casual is reason enough to avoid it in most writing.

James Kenny, of Mamaroneck, N.Y., writes: “The use of the word ‘premise’ when the intended meaning is ‘premises’ sounds like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I have heard this mistake on TV and in radio commercials, and have seen it written on Web sites. Please help slow this butchering of the English language.”

Dear James: People are saying “premise” — which means a basic assumption — when they mean “premises,” or “property”? Good heavens. Yes, I see on the Web that they are, particularly in the combinations “on-premise” and “off-premise.” That’s ridiculous. “Premises” are as different from “a premise” as “glasses” are from “a glass.” Everybody who’s mixing the two up, cut it out!

James Griffith, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “A sign recently posted outside the city police headquarters reads: ‘Kingston Police is moving to ....’ Should it not say ‘THE Kingston Police ARE moving’? Or ‘The Kingston Police headquarters is moving’?”

Dear James: The person who made that sign must have thought, “‘Police’ doesn’t end in ‘s,’ so it’s a singular noun” — and so it is. Nonetheless, the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, along with the New Oxford American Dictionary, specifies that it should be “treated as plural.” The Oxford English Dictionary also includes a note to that effect — so I think we’re safe in calling “is” in that sentence just plain wrong. And of course you’re right that “the” is usual with “police,” though perhaps we should forgive the writer for leaving it off a sign, where space is limited.

So, yes, “The Kingston Police are moving” would be an improvement. If you bring “headquarters” into it, that’s a different story. “Headquarters” is derived from the plural noun “quarters,” meaning “residence” (which in turn is derived from regular old “quarter,” meaning “a fourth,” though this is probably not the place to get into why). “Headquarters” itself can be either singular or plural, according to both the Oxford Canadian and New Oxford American dictionaries. Now, that’s handy. Either “The headquarters is” or “The headquarters are” would be correct.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list