Ain’t English wonderful!
Or, more truthfully, ain’t its speakers wonderful!
Despite all attempts to confine the language, some speakers will always manage to wriggle out of any straitjacket. Here’s a case in point: there’s a standard adverbial all of a sudden. But there’s also a minority variant, ?all of the sudden. And then there’s ?out of the sudden.
Actually, while all of a sudden trips naturally off the tongue or the keyboard (to coin a phrase), its grammar is mildly interesting for the reasons given at the end of this blog. But back to the topic in hand…
- All of the sudden is used – by a minority of speakers, possibly younger speakers.
- Most people will consider it wrong.
- Historically, there has been a lot of a/the variation in the slot “of – sudden”, but not with all of a sudden.
- Contrary to rumour, the Bard of Avon did not coin the phrase all of a sudden (see citations lower down).
All of the sudden
“Don’t be daft!” I hear you say. “Nobody says that, do they?” (“Pshaw and fiddlesticks. Pig ignorance, I call it!”)
We can’t tell exactly how many people say it, but it does occur in written corpus sources. In the Corpus of Contemporary American (COCA), all of the sudden occurs 294 times, compared to all of a sudden’s whopping 6,836 occurrences.
What’s noticeable, first, is that the biggest chunk is in the spoken segment (58%). In the academic segment there is just one example.
Second, frequency, though still very low, seems to be increasing over time: from 0.3 per million (1990–1995) to 0.67 (2010–2015).
Third, the percentage in COCA of all of the sudden out of the totals of both versions is 4.1%, so it’s very much a minority phrasing – at the moment. Similarly small percentages are reflected in the data in the Global Corpus of Web-Based English (GloWbE) and in the NOW (News on the Web) corpus – 5.3% and 3.7%.
Fourth – and many British speakers will sigh, shake their heads, and tut-tut at this point – all of the sudden is chiefly US and Canadian: in NOW it is seven times more frequent per million words in US English than in British English.
Out of the sudden
You what? Yessiree!
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I heard an American witness to the horrific events in Nice using the phrase. It was completely new to me, so I thought I’d check it out. A Google “…” search throws up 169,000 results. I skimmed the first few pages. Of course, many of them are not a set phrase at all, but rather out of + DET/the + ADJ/sudden + N, e.g. “…when we stepped into the lively, warm, candlelit bar out of the sudden April downpour, it was a welcome sight.”
But many of them are the set phrase, e.g.
Yesterday I played a bit with the setup, enjoyed some games on FBA and then out of the sudden, the hotkey has no function anymore.
What is one to make of this? It looks like a combination of out of the (blue) + (all of a/the) sudden.
It’s not really a standard eggcorn: there is no obvious homophone link — all of a/out of the are hard to confuse, aren’t they?; there is no clear meaning re-interpretation, because the change is largely syntactic; and it affects more than a single word. But, hey presto, there’s a potential term for it: a blidiom, i.e. an idiom blend.
Perhaps it is very much a spoken phrase, which then ends up being written online and thereby picked up by Google. That would explain why Google has so many examples despite the phrase’s rarity in both GloWbE and NOW. In the first, the string out of the sudden occurs 20 times, but only 13 are the set phrase, the other seven having a noun following; in NOW, only one out of six is the set phrase, which might just possibly reflect the fact that NOW consists of news sites, whereas GloWbE consists 60 per cent of informal blogs.
Is there any reason why it has to be all of A sudden?
Idiom, dear boy, idiom. As Fowler said “that is idiomatic which it is natural for a normal Englishman to say or write ; … ; grammar & idiom are independent categories”.
It’s the current majority convention, but it wasn’t always so.
Historically, there has been a lot of see-sawing, not only between the indefinite/definite article, but also with the preposition: variations – without the word all – are of/on/upon/at/in + a/the + sudden.
Is it possible That loue should of a sodaine take such hold?
The Taming of the Shrew, before 1616, i. i. 145
As he gazed, he saw of a sudden a man steal forth from the wood.
Conan Doyle, White Company, 1890.
My Crop promis’d very well, when on a sudden I found I was in Danger of losing it all again.
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719
The earliest OED (1558) citation of the phrase is in the form of the sudden:
To be…done…for more reasonable hier in hope of present payment then can be had or done upon the soden.
in A. Feuillerat Documents Office of Revels Queen Elizabeth, (1908) 17
The first citation of the “canonical” form – at least under the entry for sudden, I’m still searching elsewhere in the OED – is this, nearly 130 years later than the first, 1558, citation:
All of a sudden, and without any…previous Instructions, they were heard to speak…in the fifteen several Tongues of fifteen several Nations.
J. Scott, Christian Life: Pt. IIII. vii. 601, 1686
Do usage guides say anything?
There was some discussion a while back on Stack Exchange. A specious suggestion that all of the sudden might be logical when referring back to an event already mentioned, thereby justifying the specificity of the definite article, received the memorably aphoristic reply: “Idiom trumps logic.” Fowler would undoubtedly have concurred.
Oh, and the WordPress spell checker ain’t having none of all of the sudden.
Some grammar points
- Sudden is primarily an adjective, but here it’s being used as a noun. There’s nothing too unusual about that in itself: “out of the blue” similarly turns an adjective into a noun.
- Before searching in COCA, I had expected all of a to be immediately followed by a singular noun in most cases. In contrast, nearly all examples are for the set phrase all of a sudden. The very few examples with a noun are all of the type all of a + SG N’S + SG/PL N” as in “all of a cell’s DNA/a hospital’s procedures”.
- The only other set phrase that crops up in COCA is all of a piece, e.g. “The aim of American movies in the thirties…was to appear seamless, all of a piece…”.
- All is being used here as an intensifying adverb, as in “She’s come over all shy”, a use marked in Oxford online as informal. Another example given by Oxford is “He was all of a dither.”