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Sudden enlightenment

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 27, 2008 04:45 PM

Like Kevin in last week's Word column -- whose high school teacher banned negatives like "we have no bananas" on the grounds that you can't have nothing -- Gary Lucia was led astray by an English teacher, he reports:

In seventh grade, my teacher corrected a paper in which I wrote "all of a sudden." She said it should be "all of THE sudden." I started writing it (and saying it) this way for years -- and argued with people about it, with my teacher's admonishment as my 'proof' of its correctness. But after finally researching it, I realized that my teacher was (gulp) wrong!

Yes, she was -- but you might also say she was simply a few centuries out of date. (It wouldn't be the first time a teacher earned the label "dinosaur.") Because according to the OED, "the sudden" is a bit older than "a sudden," and was once at least as popular.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, there were lots of variants of our idiom using the noun "sudden" (spelling slightly corrected):

"I thinke, that none can justly account them selves Architectes, of the suddeyne" (1570).

"These verses were devised ... upon a very great sudden" (1575).

"I was ... compelled to answere of the sodaine" (1590).

"[F]or more reasonable hire in hope of present payment than can be had or done upon the soden" (1558).

"It is an easie thing in the sight of the Lord, on the sudden to make a poore man rich" (1611, King James Bible).

This does not mean "all of the sudden" (or "all the sudden") is standard today; it's a minority usage that makes many readers scratch their heads. And Lucia's teacher was certainly wrong to call it the correct version.

But there's nothing logically or historically objectionable about "the sudden"; it just happens to have lost the popularity contest of the past four centuries. In another four centuries, it could be the version our descendants prefer.

"I bet you could do a whole column with submissions from your readers who have been affected by false information from their teachers," adds Lucia. Maybe so -- though some people find it really hard to admit that their instructors' grammar gospel is false. Still, if you've got a story of usage deprogramming to share, I'd love to hear it.


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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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