Posted by: Jack Henry | October 10, 2019

Editor’s Corner: All of a Sudden

Good morning, dear readers. Today’s topic is about something I remember my mom correcting a very long time ago when my brother was telling a story. It was a tale about frogs named Papa San Franco and Baby San Franco (yes, he was a creative child). He got to the action scene and said, “Then all of the sudden, whoop, bing, bang!” (And I don’t remember from there what happened with the San Franco frogs.) When he was done with his story, my mom said, “It’s not all of the sudden, it’s all of a sudden.”

Here, from Grammar Girl, is an explanation of the phrase and its history. The full article is on her web page.

First, “all of the sudden” is definitely a phrase you should avoid.

Garner’s Modern English Usage includes an entry on “all of the sudden” and pegs it at stage 1 on the language change index, which means “rejected.” In other words, still totally wrong.

The correct phrase in English is “all of a sudden,” not “all of the sudden….”

These “Sudden” Phrases Go Back to the 1500s

The evolution of the phrase is kind of interesting…. It was originally “the sudden,” but it lacked an “all” in front. For example, the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1570, and it’s “of the sudden.” Here’s one from Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” published around 1616. By then, it had become “of a sudden”:

Is it possible that love should of a sudden take such hold?

It’s not until 1686 that “all” come into play, and from there on “all of a sudden” seems to be the standard.

There was a similar phrase that the OED says was very common between about 1560 and 1700 and it could use either “the” or “a”: It was “on the sudden” or “on a sudden.” And as I read the citations, I found that they did have an old-timey feel to me. Here’s one from “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe:

My Crop promis’d very well, when on a sudden I found I was in Danger of losing it all again.

More recently looking at a Google Ngram chart (that is how often a phrase appears in published books scanned by Google), what most people consider the incorrect form—“all of the sudden”—slowly starts increasing around 1960 and then really takes off around 1985…. So it looks like this really is a relatively new phenomenon.

“All of a Sudden” Is an Idiom

Finally, you might be wondering why one is wrong and the other is right since they’re the same grammatically. For example, a listener named Melissa mentioned that when she asked about the two phrases. Someone corrected her, and she accepted that she was wrong, but said she “couldn’t understand what would make ‘the’ less correct than ‘a.’" And she has a point.

“A” and “the” are both articles, and we can usually use them both before any noun. “All of a sudden” is just what we call an idiom, which is a fancy way of saying “that’s just how it is.” It’s right the way it is because that’s how people are used to hearing it. There’s no rule or grammatical reason for it. It just is.

That’s your Quick and Dirty Tip: The correct phrase in English is “all of a sudden,” not “all of the sudden.”

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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