All of a Sudden vs. All of the Sudden: Which Is Correct?

You've been using the phrase "all of a sudden" with confidence. Now "all of the sudden," it's not so clear which is correct.

Have you ever had a moment when something you’ve been saying for years without a second thought comes under self-scrutiny and you begin to doubt yourself? Beyond the 70 words and phrases you’re probably using all wrong, take the phrase “all of a sudden.” It’s so useful in building suspense while telling a dramatic story. What phrase better captures the immediacy and surprise that turns on a moment than all of a sudden?

All of a sudden, the bear stood on his hind legs and spoke to me in perfect French…

All of a sudden, the school bus spouted metal wings and took to the sky for the third time that month…

All of a sudden, the lights went out and we were plunged into absolute darkness…

Until, all of the sudden, you aren’t so sure you’ve been saying the phrase correctly. Say it out loud and the tiny “a” vs. “the” sound quite similar. It’s a classic toward vs. towards situation—you’ve heard it said both ways, maybe even see it written interchangeably, for so long that both sound right. So, what is the correct version? Is it all of the sudden or all of a sudden? And what is a sudden anyway, and what’s wrong with suddenly? So many questions spring to mind when you really start to think about it. Well, we’ve got the answers.

What’s the difference between “all of a sudden” and “all of the sudden?”

All of a sudden is an adverb phrase that describes things that occur without warning or at once. The idiom is a holdover from the past—a poetic and slightly archaic way of saying “suddenly.” All of the sudden is not an acknowledged variant, though it has recently become quite common. The more modern evolution of the phrase with the “the” article is not technically wrong, just as all of a sudden is not technically right, but the latter is preferred by dictionaries and grammarians. The evolution of our speech patterns and colloquialisms is partially to blame. The phrase definitely evolved, though not nearly as much as these words that have changed meaning drastically over time.

While rarely written in professionally published writing, the phrase all of the sudden is common in casual speech and writing. There is no real or grammatical difference between the phrase with the article “a” versus “the,” but only the former is deemed correct in formal speech and writing.

Where did the true idiom come from?

The correct form of the idiom, all of a sudden, is not tied to any grammatical reasoning, so we look to its origins. The English language long ago abandoned the noun form of “sudden,” yet the phrase endured. The earliest use of the phrase using “a” is credited to Shakespeare’s 1596 play The Taming of the Shrew, where he wrote “Is it possible that love should of a sodaine [sudden] take such hold?” (1.1.117-8). The “the” version  was also common in writings and conversation at about the same time, maybe even a few years earlier, however The Bard’s usage persisted and became the one that experts prefer.

Usage examples

  • All of a sudden, the neighbor’s new car hit my garage! He’ll be just as shocked when he receives the bill.”
  • “I was walking down the street when, all of a sudden, a black cat crossed my path. I guess today is not the lucky day that my horoscope foretold.”
  • “What? All of a sudden you care about environmental protections, Larry? You drive a hummer!”

Next up, brush up on other misconceptions that many still believe.