When it’s okay to spell okay ‘OK’

Writers and editors may be the only people who get into arguments about spelling. In fact, I think it could easily be said that if you’re inclined to argue about how things ought to be spelled, you’re an editor, at heart if not by title.

OK button
Illustration by 3d_kot – Fotolia.com

I’ve been inclined to spell OK with two letters for as long as I can remember. Maybe I read an article about its origins early on. There’s no telling. But that spelling became deeply ingrained when I worked in the newsroom, because it’s the one endorsed by the Associated Press Stylebook.

So I was surprised when not one, but two critique partners, on two different occasions, told me OK was “wrong” and that the only acceptable spelling is okay. Further shock ensued when they both cited The Chicago Manual of Style as the origin of this edict.

I actually argued with the first of them for a bit before remembering we’re not supposed to argue when being critiqued. But I was miffed because — ahem — I’m a copyeditor, and I’ve read CMOS, and okay is not in there. So the second time it happened, I just got double-miffed. But at least I didn’t argue.

Instead, I double-checked. Sure enough, neither the 15th nor the 16th edition have any judgment on okay vs OK. But then I thought they might be remembering an older version. So I asked. Here’s what the staff at The Chicago Manual of Style Online had to say:

CMOS doesn’t specify, but as it happens, the manual uses “OK” twice (at 2.66 and 2.113) and does not use “okay.” … We follow Webster’s 11th Collegiate, which puts OK as the first spelling, but lists “okay” as an equal variant (also standard).

So you oughtn’t say with certainty, as my crit partners did, that one way or the other is right or wrong. If you’re writing for an AP-style newspaper or a publisher using CMOS, it’s OK. Other publishers may have a house style guide that specifies okay, as does The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, published by Zondervan and widely adopted in the Christian submarket. Since my two crit partners both write for that submarket, they probably learned it from their editors and mistook CWMS for CMOS.

You’ll find the spelling OK listed first in all the major dictionaries. The alternative spelling, okay, is given equal weight in most, but not all. The Compact Oxford gives the OK spelling more weight.

When a dictionary lists two spellings separated by “also,” as Compact Oxford does with OK, then the first is preferred, but the second is acceptable. When two spellings are separated by “or,” both are equally correct. Which to use is a style choice. All that matters is that spelling be consistent, at least within each work, if not across all works from a given publisher. Many book publishers prefer okay because it behaves like a word, forming other words such as okayed and okaying. And it looks like a word, instead of looking like a cheerleader jumping up in the middle of your book yelling “O-K!”

For more about “The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word,” including its incredible origin, see the book by Allan Metcalf, which, I must point out, is titled OK.

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  1. […] As we’ve seen before, when lexicographers separate the variants with “also,” the first-listed word is the preferred one, whereas when they are separated by “or,” either is acceptable. But usage experts like Garner recommend using the first-listed word in the second case also. […]

  2. […] is often contingent upon which stylebook you’re using. For example, whether OK is spelled with two letters or four will depend on whether you’re using the Associated Press Stylebook (OK) or Christian Writer’s […]

  3. […] AP, Yahoo, and Garbl specifically call for OK. CWMS calls for okay. Chicago is silent in print, but when I asked the editors, they said, “We follow Webster’s 11th Collegiate, which puts ‘OK’ as the first […]

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