A few months ago in a Slack channel for podcasters, one of my friends posted a grammar gripe. He wrote,
This grammar pet peeve has been bugging me a lot lately because I’ve seen it used in very prominent places: “all of a sudden …”
It’s supposed to be “all of _the_ sudden,” but simply saying, “suddenly” sounds a whole lot more grown up.
It was interesting because he had it backwards. “All of a sudden” is the right way to say it, but when he heard it that way, apparently it bugged him. I’ve occasionally gotten questions about the phrase over the years, but in the week after my friend raised the issue, I got two or three more questions about these “all of [something] sudden” phrases, so I decided it was time to look into it more deeply than I had when I just gave people simple answers before.
‘All of a Sudden’ Is the Correct Form
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.”
The Chicago Manual of Style Q&A section says: “[the] CMOS is silent on the issue, but ‘all of the sudden’ is not idiomatic and normally would be edited to ‘all of a sudden.”
Even if you look at much more informal language, “all of a sudden” is the clear winner. For example, in Mark Davies’ BYU corpus of language used in TV shows since the 1950s, there are more than 5,500 instances of “all of a sudden” and only 133 of “all of the sudden.”
‘All of the Sudden’ Doesn’t Seem to Be Regional
Next, I wondered whether “all of the sudden” could be a regional saying, since my friend who complained is from Ohio, and another friend who is in the Slack channel and also from Ohio also said he’s an “all of the sudden” kind of guy. But Gabe Doyle of the Motivated Grammar website looked at tweets that used “all of a sudden” and “all of the sudden” and didn’t find any evidence that there’s a regional difference. There doesn’t seem to be a place where people are more likely to say “all of the sudden.”
These ‘Sudden’ Phrases Go Back to the 1500s
The evolution of the phrase is kind of interesting too. 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. In fact, all but four of the examples in that corpus of language people use on TV that I mentioned earlier, all but four of those came after 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.