English language Uncategorized

Altogether now

Q: I’m reading Words Fail Me, your book on writing, and notice you use “altogether” a few times. Strunk & White, if I remember, calls it a no-no. The authors suggest “all together” instead. Have the rules changed? Is S&W still the last word on good English?

A: I don’t see anything in my copy of The Elements of Style that’s critical of “altogether,” which is a perfectly acceptable word and means something entirely different from “all together.”

“Altogether” means entirely, completely, all told, or on the whole. Example: “He lost the match altogether.” Or, “Altogether it was a disaster.”

“All together” is used to refer to something done by members of a group collectively. Example: “The family was all together.” You use the expression “all together” when you could just as easily split the words up and get the same meaning, as in “All the family was together.”

The adverb “altogether” has been perfectly good English since around 1200. Here’s an example from the King James Bible (1611): “Thou wast altogether born in sins.”

You may be thinking of something else from Strunk and White. The book notes that the expression “all right” is properly written as two words. The authors don’t say so, but their point is that “alright” is all wrong.

Unfortunately, we now see the one-word spelling (“alright”) almost every day. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) still calls “alright” nonstandard, though Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says “it has its defenders and its users.” The jury is out on this one, but I vote guilty. For now, it’s a no-no.

Is Strunk & White still the cat’s meow? I think much of its advice about writing clearly and simply holds true today, though some of the usage recommendations may be outdated.

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