The Grammarphobia Blog

Sudden life

Q: I know someone who uses the expression “all of THE sudden” all of the time, and I just found it in a not very well-written novel. I consider it one more entry in the Ugly Lexicon, up there with “humongous” and “it’s so fun.”

A: The common expression in modern English is of course “all of a sudden.” It’s one of those idiomatic phrases that on the surface don’t make sense literally. But read on.

“Sudden” came to us from Old French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and its ultimate source is the Latin subire, meaning to come or go stealthily.

It entered English in about 1300 as an adjective (spelled soden, sodeyne, sodein, swdan, and all sorts of other ways; the spelling wasn’t established until after 1700). Beginning in the 1400s, according to the OED, “sudden” was also used as an adverb, the way we use “suddenly” today.

But (and here’s the relevant part) in the 1500s people began using “sudden” as a noun. A “sudden” was an unexpected occurrence. So people spoke of events that happened at, in, of, or upon “the sudden” or “a sudden.”

Notice, though, how phrases with “the” came before those with “a.” H-m-m. Here are some citations from the OED of “sudden” at work with various prepositions:

• “at the sodeyne” (1559) vs. “at a sudden” (1560)
• “in the Sodeyne” (1559) vs. “in a sodaine” (1560)
• “of the suddeyne” (1570) vs. “of a sodaine” (1596)
• “upon the soden” (1558) vs. “vpon a sodayne” (1565)

At about this time, the use of “sudden” was extended to phrases that required the indefinite article “a,” like these: “upon suche a sodeyn” (1572); “upon a very great sudden” (1575); and “with such a sodaine” (1582). This may have influenced a general movement toward usages with “a” instead of “the,” a preference that eventually won out.

“All” didn’t enter the picture (as far as our phrase is concerned) until the 1600s. “All of a sudden” first appeared in 1681. So the historical progression of the phrase we’re talking about was “of the sudden” … “of a sudden” … “all of a sudden.”

Here and there, one comes across an “all of the sudden” on the Internet or heard on the street, but rarely in published writing. The expression is well established as “all of a sudden.” And in the 21st century it gives us our only remaining chance to use old “sudden” as a noun!

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