Ok vs okay. What they mean and when to use them

By Strategically AI. Reviewed by Rebecca Hey.
Updated August 4, 2022
4 minute read
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Ok vs okay. What they mean and when to use them

In today's grammar, 'ok' and 'okay' are the same word, but they seem to be used interchangeably with no absolute rule on which variation to use and when. For grammar nerds who are meticulous about getting things right, it's tricky to know if there's one that's more appropriate for formal writing or not. Considering the word is one of the most spoken words around the world, as it translates so easily into most languages, there's a lot of confusion around it.

So when did 'okay' come about? And what is the correct way to spell it? This blog piece will help you decide which term is the best to use or if it really matters at all. We'll also explain where the word 'ok' came from and why it's so popular today.

What is the definition of okay?

In the Oxford English Dictionary, 'okay' is defined as 'satisfactory, all correct, fine, in good health, in good order, acceptable, or adequate.'

We use 'ok' and 'okay' as verbs when describing something that isn't good but isn't bad either. It's neutral or fine. We might also use it to agree with what someone says and vocalise it with a simple 'okay'.

When did it become normal to use ok?

The proposed etymology of the word 'okay' is complicated. Etymologists traced its early uses back to it being used as an abbreviation for 'oll korrect'. This translates to the words 'all correct' spelt incorrectly, ironically. The shortened version 'ok' actually precedes 'okay', and the longer version became more popular in the following decades.

There are other theories that it was a joke between editorial staff in newspapers that went 'viral' and ended up being adopted worldwide. The Boston Morning Post first published the word in 1839.

Others have publicised that President Martin Van Buren adopted it for his presidential campaign slogan with the 'Vote for OK' slogan as a reference to his nickname 'Old Kinderhook'. But, historians have dismissed this. His campaign certainly helped his popularity, but it had been used before. 

One thing is quite apparent, 'ok' became popular primarily due to its simplicity. A simple two-letter note to mean 'all correct'. When the telegram was one of the significant methods of communication, signing 'OK' was much shorter than 'all correct'. It made it a much easier abbreviation. It's also easy to pronounce. Almost every language has the letters 'o' and 'k', translating it well across other cultures. 

More recently, it's been shortened further to just 'k' thanks to text messaging, especially back when text messages had a limited character usage per text. 

Is there a difference between ok and okay?

The short answer is that 'ok' vs 'okay' can be used interchangeably. There's no difference between the definitions, and it doesn't matter what spelling you use in formal writing or colloquially. Some people prefer to use 'ok' in more informal settings like messaging or emailing and 'okay' in formal uses like essays or articles. But the truth is, there is no difference. They are both acceptable spellings. You won't be penalised for using one over the other. 

The Chicago Manual states in their style guide that 'ok' vs 'okay is a matter of writers' preferred spelling. They have opted to use 'okay' as it looks more like a real word when explaining things. But the abbreviated term is fine too.

It also doesn't matter whether or not a writer uses capital letters to make it 'OK' or 'ok'. They are both acceptable spellings and grammatically correct.

Examples of using ok and okay in sentences

There are plenty of ways to use 'ok' or 'okay' in a sentence. It's a diverse word that can be applied in various formats: 

  • I'm not ok.
  • Are you okay?
  • This salmon was only ok. 
  • Okay, I will do that for you. 
  • He did an ok job. 
  • The restaurant around the corner is okay. 

As you can see, the spelling of the word doesn't change the sentence's meaning. So you can choose the version that suits you.


'OK' has been around for a long time. It was invented after being published in The Boston Morning Post and rose to popularity due to its abbreviation being perfect for communicating via telegram, which was the most popular form of passing messages over a long distance at that time. Some theorise President Martin van Buren invented it as an abbreviation of his nickname 'Old Kinderhook'. This is factually incorrect. However, he did adopt it for his campaign and contributed to the popularity of 'okay'. 

It doesn't matter which spelling of 'ok' you want to use. It can be 'okay' or 'ok'. One version isn't better than the other. Some people have their preferences that 'okay' be reserved for formal writing or a professional document, whereas 'ok' could be for messaging. According to grammar rules, they can be used interchangeably. 

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Rebecca Hey
Founder of Strategically.co, we’ve created over 10 million words of impactful content, driving organic traffic growth for more than 300 businesses.
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