OK, ok, okay. How do you write OK?

We received the following question from Tim, one of our e-bulletin readers:

‘Is it okay to write “OK” as “ok”? Or should the abbreviated form always be in upper case?’

Little did he know the amount of discussion his question would generate in the office, writes Cathy Relf.

The simple answer to Tim’s question is that ‘ok’, while just about acceptable in text messages, isn’t really OK for more formal contexts. The generally accepted form is ‘OK’ – upper case, with no full stops.

But, as there seems to be some appetite for a more complicated answer, here’s a little further information.

There are several wildly differing theories regarding where OK comes from, from the German ‘ohne Korrektur’ to the Ulster Scots ‘och aye’ and even the Wolof ‘waw-kay’. But the most widely accepted theory was presented by Allen Walker Read of Columbia University in 1963 and has its roots much closer to home.

He traced OK back to its first appearance in print, in the Boston Morning Post, in 1839. It featured in a satirical article on bad spelling, as a humorous abbreviation of ‘all correct’ – deliberately misspelled ‘orl korrect’.

(… And let’s just pause a moment here to chuckle at ourselves for discussing how we should correctly spell a word that started life as a deliberate misspelling.)

Some people prefer to write ‘okay’, because it looks more like a word and allows them to avoid the jarring appearance of block capitals. In Modern English Usage, HW Fowler writes: ‘The alternative form okay is especially useful as a verb (= to say OK to, to authorise), allowing more comfortable inflected forms (okays, okayed, okaying) than OK does.’

However, many insist that the ‘okay’ spelling shouldn’t be allowed. This is because when the word first appeared in print, in 1839, it was spelt ‘OK’. The spelling ‘okay’ developed some time later. A quick look at Google’s Ngram Viewer suggests that ‘OK’ had at least a 100-year head start on ‘okay’, but that for most of the past 100 years the two have been neck and neck. It’s only in the past 20 years or so that ‘OK’ has surged decisively back into the lead.

And that brings us tidily back to the present day. The most widely accepted spelling is OK, and for a quiet life that’s definitely the one to go with. But if you want to make a stand for okay, that’s OK by us.

Further reading:
•  John McIntyre’s OK by me post in the Baltimore Sun explains the ‘orl korrect’ joke in more detail
•  Stan Carey’s blog post Oke is OK discusses more variant spellings
• and for the truly dedicated, Allan Metcalf’s book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word (Oxford University Press, £12.99) is apparently a brilliant read.

Okay then. (OK then?) To learn more about better professional writing, download our free 64-page guide to business writing, The Write Stuff.

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