Alot, along, and away? Or a lot, a long, and a way?
- Is there a space between a and lot, or is the spelling alot OK?
- What’s the difference between away and a way?
If you’ve ever pondered over questions similar to these, the dilemma of ‘two words or one?’ is one which you’ll have grappled with when putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. On the other hand, this may be an issue that has so far slipped beneath your radar, and you’re confident about when to hit the space bar or leave a gap on the page.
Do you belong in the first group of puzzled people? There appears to be much confusion about when to write certain fixed expressions as one word or two. There are 2,261 occurrences of abit on the 3-billion-word Oxford English Corpus (OEC), and 5,789 of alot. Here are a couple of examples:
X Michelle is gorgeous, but looks abit strange here.
X There is alot of truth to that statement.
As you can see from the big X, abit and alot, however frequently they are now occurring, are not yet acceptable spellings. The correct form is the two-word one:
✔ Michelle is gorgeous, but looks a bit strange here.
✔ There is a lot of truth to that statement.
Two become one…and vice versa
Abit and alot are just a couple of examples which are indicative of a wider linguistic trend: common fixed expressions which should be written as two separate words are increasingly appearing as a single word. It’s not restricted to combinations of the indefinite article (a or an) with a noun, either. There are other phrases showing the same development, for example:
X I can’t wait to see what this year has instore for us.
X I got no support from the NHS atall.
X The screenplay in the later part of the film wasn’t upto the mark.
X You get my lifetime achievement award vote anyday!
When I researched this topic, I was surprised to find that upto and anyday occur 5,311 and 926 times on the OEC respectively. However, this isn’t the time or place to start wringing our hands and blaming the Internet or falling educational standards for the decline in ‘correct’ spelling. The shift from two- (or three-) word expressions to one-word spellings isn’t in the least bit recent. The historical evidence from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) shows that many of today’s single-word forms, such as forever, tomorrow, instead, nonetheless, somewhat, whatsoever, and notwithstanding, were all originally written as two or more separate components.
The fusing of two-word expressions appears to be particularly strong in American English, where it’s standard practice to write underway, anymore, or someday as one word, for example, whereas the two-word forms are still the norm in British English.
Is aswell a word?
There’s also a weaker trend, in the opposite direction, from one-word forms to two. Current expressions such as all over, young man, as much, and as well were often written as one word in the Middle Ages or later. Today, it’s not likely that you’d see aswell in writing as a single word. Additionally, words such as along and away are appearing as a long and a way.
All of which is ample proof that, in all aspects, from orthography to grammar, language is constantly on the move. Any standard English spelling that’s acceptable during a particular period of time or in a particular region may eventually pass outside the norm, simply because it’s been replaced by a different form that’s become dominant in terms of overall usage.
Along or a long; away or a way?
So does word division really matter, as long as people understand what you’ve written? I think it depends: in the case of abit and alot, the one-word form means exactly the same as the two-word one*, so readers, while perhaps being slightly peeved by the spelling error, know what is meant.
The situation becomes more confusing in cases where there is both a one-word and a two-word form in existence, but each form has different meanings and grammatical functions. In this situation, it’s far more important to get it right, as spelling errors may lead to misunderstandings. Take along (a preposition and adverb) and a long (the indefinite article a and the adjective long) for example. Are the bold words in these two sentences written correctly?
? Anyone with a good eye would have noticed it along time ago.
? They shielded each other from the rain as they walked a long the street.
Here’s another pair, using away (an adverb and adjective) and a way (the indefinite article a and the noun way):
? I reinstalled the program but the problem did not go a way.
? He had always found away to make her mad at him.
If you thought all four examples were incorrect, you were absolutely spot on!
Let’s look at along versus a long first. The key to whether you write the one-word form or the two-word one depends on knowing what role the expression plays in a sentence. In this case, the preposition along (meaning ‘forward’, ‘towards the other end of’, etc.) makes no sense: what is required is the adjective long preceded by a:
X Anyone with a good eye would have noticed it along time ago.
✔ Anyone with a good eye would have noticed it a long time ago.
This holds true for the other example. When you analyse the sentence, it’s clear that a long the street is nonsense: you need the preposition along because it means ‘towards the other end of’:
X They shielded each other from the rain as they walked a long the street.
✔ They shielded each other from the rain as they walked along the street.
We can apply exactly the same analytical process to away and a way. This sentence is incorrect because the phrase did not go a way makes no sense at all:
X I reinstalled the program but the problem did not go a way.
Replace that with the adverb away, here meaning ‘until something no longer exists’ and all is clear:
✔ I reinstalled the program but the problem did not go away.
Conversely, you can only make sense of… found away to make her mad… by using the noun phrase a way (meaning ‘a method’) rather than the adverb away:
✔ He had always found a way to make her mad at him.
A final tip
There are many other examples where confusion is rife: I’ll discuss some more (such as everyday/every day, any one/anyone, and instore/in store) in a future blog. For now, I’ll sign off with this simple advice: If you’re unsure, think carefully about your meaning, and *always* use a dictionary, as spellcheckers aren’t 100% reliable.
*Of course, the expression a lot should never be confused with the verb allot, which means ‘to give a share or portion to someone or something’ and is always written as one word, with two l’s:
I allot time for everything in a disciplined way.