It’s easy to say it, but if you’re wondering how on Earth do you spell OK vs okay, you’ve come to the right place.
In official military communications, shouted diner orders and casual conversations, it’s one of the most commonly used words in the English language, and yet almost no one can tell which is correct – OK vs okay. Throw in some periods in the two-letter variation, and you’ve got a real stumper on your hands.
There’s a good reason for that, as it happens. OK and okay are words with a long and somewhat opaque history, so it’s not always easy to tell which is correct. That’s not so great when you’re trying to write a paper or a novel.
Good news: I’m here to give you the answers you’re looking for. We’ll take a brief tour of the history of OK and its close cousin okay, as well as examine the differences between the two and when it’s OK (or okay) to use them.
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Where Did OK and Okay Come From?
Perhaps counterintuitively, the word “okay” evolved from “OK,” not the other way around. The abbreviation entered American English by chance and stuck around so long that it got its own longer, more official-looking spelling. But where did it come from?
Stories differ, but most sources agree that the initial appearance of the word was in a Boston newspaper. Apparently, social media isn’t the original source of funny abbreviations. Move over, TTYL and LOL, OK was here before you.
On its first written appearance, it was spelled “o.k.” and stood for “oll korrect,” a supposedly funny misspelling of “all correct.” This was apparently a potshot by Boston Morning Post editor Charles Gordon Greene against another paper.
Our modern brains probably can’t grasp the complex and elevated humor at work here, but at the time, people thought it was high wit.
How Did OK Become a Real Word?
The word “o.k.” lost its ROFL sheen as it permeated the English language for real. People started using it as we do today, to indicate that something is fine. Cementing its permanence, President Martin Van Buren – nicknamed Old Kinderhook in homage to his birthplace – began using it as a campaign slogan to show that he was “O.K.”
Somewhere around this time, English dropped the periods and capitalized the letters. The capitalization likely came as a result of Van Buren’s campaign contributions, but it’s hard to say where the periods went.
From there, it entered the popular lexicon and hasn’t left. Among other things, we know of it through the OK Corral and through the phrase A-OK (first popularized at NASA, because the A sound was apparently better for transmission tests than the O).
We have a whole hand signal for it now: thumb and forefinger meeting, other three fingers in the air.
Once OK became firmly entrenched in the language, “okay” followed after it, likely because it looks more like a word than the abbreviation. This was better for longform writing, so it too stuck around.
Do OK and Okay Mean the Same Thing?
Yes, both spellings mean exactly the same thing. Neither is differentiated by its usage, part of speech, geographic region or anything else. The only difference between them is the spelling.
Okay Vs OK in Spelling and Grammar
Okay, you’re thinking, how do I know which spelling is OK to use?
The short answer is both are okay. There’s no consensus on which spelling is correct, though different style guides do require different spellings. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is used in fiction, requires the longer spelling “okay.”
But as MentalFloss explains, AP Style is very uptight about the use of the abbreviated “OK.” Specifically, they require that it always be two capital letters, and that you maintain the spelling even when using it as a verb. That means “the editor will have to OK it” and “he’s OK’ing it as we speak” and “they OK’d it this morning.” Yeah, terrible apostrophe and all.
Today, the only thing you need to remember is if you do decide to us OK, or if your stylebook dictates that you should, you don’t need the periods. Those went the way of Van Buren (who lost the election, by the way). You might also find our 20 common synonyms for experience helpful.
The Final Word on OK Vs Okay
Looking for a final word? Here’s the takeaway: Both spellings are totally fine to use in any writing, unless you must follow specific requirements or style guides that require one or the other.
Moreover, while OK and okay are perfectly correct words, they are both rather casual. If you’re looking to make them more formal, you can use the longer spelling, or you can avoid them altogether in favor of better word choices, discussed in more detail in the FAQs. If you liked this post, you might be interested in our aggravate vs. exacerbate explainer.
FAQs About OK Vs Okay
Is okay formal?
Okay does appear to be the more formal spelling in the sense that it looks like a real word. It doesn’t call attention to itself the way abbreviations do, which tend to look a little less literate and get perceived as lower-class.
Also, in today’s hyper-digital environment, where social media is sometimes denigrated, you might do better to stay away from shorthand that gets associated with the LOLs and ROFLs of the world. That’s up to you, though, and you can always ask a boss or a professor if they have a preference.
Is alright better than okay?
“All right” is acceptable, but “alright” is an antiquated spelling that you ought to avoid. Typically, all right and okay carry about the same meaning and same level of erudition.
Is fine better than okay?
As with “all right,” “fine” is a fine substitute for okay. (See what I did there?) However, all three of these terms have plenty of excellent synonyms that might serve your writing better. If you truly mean to indicate that something is okay, for instance, you might say “shipshape” or “in good order.”
If you mean that something is “just okay,” you could say “middling,” “mediocre” or “adequate.” Any of these would convey the same meaning while making your word choice more interesting.