September 05, 2006

Definitization: a >> the

A few days ago Geoff Nunberg passed around in the LLP offices a query sent on to him by the "Fresh Air" staff about all of the sudden for all of a sudden.  Maybe a slightly more dramatic 'suddenly', or just a mishearing.  And then I found myself adrift in a historical sea of idiomatic articles and prepositions.

1.  Turns out that this one's in Brians and Garner and a pile of on-line advice material.  A number of commenters on the eggcorn database have suggested it as a possible eggcorn.  And it's frequent and widespread -- over a million raw webhits, from all over the place:

I all of the sudden feel stupid... (link)

is there anyreason why my RSS feed would fail all of the sudden? (link)

All Of The Sudden, Mel Gibson Doesn't Seem So Bad. More tolerance and promotion of diversity, courtesy of the anti-war left. (link)

The OED entry for sudden has a subentry for of a sudden 'suddenly' that notes this was in fact earlier of the sudden, a variant that is now obsolete (1590 is their last cite).  The modern occurrences are mostly of all of a sudden -- unmodified of a sudden is just impossible for me -- though there's an 1890 plain of a sudden cite from Arthur Conan Doyle.

Presumably the occurrences of all of the sudden that are all over the place these days involve later replacements of a by the, and are not survivals of long-ago the.  But the question is worth looking at.

2.  I'd somehow missed all of the sudden until this query came in, though I was aware of all on a sudden, which gets about 33,200 raw Google webhits:

... as he sat on the shore with his rod, looking at the sparkling waves and watching his line, all on a sudden his float was dragged away deep into the ... (link)

the sea, all on a sudden, began to roar, and rise in billows; the birds flew about astonished; the cattle ran crying in the fields; and ... (link)

Maradona is a player of that class who can change the environment all on a sudden just being himself present. (link)

The OED lists on/upon a/the sudden but labels them archaic.  Most of the cites i've looked at either have a somewhat old-fashioned tone to them (to my ears) or come from Indian sources (the expressions may have survived in Indian English).  (The OED also lists the obsolete variants at a/the sudden and in a sudden.)

3.  At this point I wondered if a had been replaced by the in other idiomatic expressions.  I searched for once in the while (for once in a while) and got 746 raw webhits, among them:

Every once in the while the color goes very blue on the Old Faithful WebCam image. Why? (link)

Working Stiff is a webzine that aims to help average working people put in fewer hours for more pay and win arguments with the boss once in the while. (link)

And thanks for the reminder. I need a good kick in pants every once in the while on this topic. (link)

This time the OED has no the variant (though it gives once and a while as an "occasional" variant; once and a while is already in the eggcorn database).

Once in the while isn't in MWDEU, Brians, Garner, Trask, or Fiske.  Garner does list once in while and once and while as manglings of once in a while, though. 

4.  Once in while gets an impressive 130,000 raw webhits, including:

After the conclusion of proceedings one juror was heard to say "Every once in while you get the chance to do the right thing. We did it in there today. (link)

Every once in while, a person will do something obvious and direct that is no more than it appears to be. (link)

How about that we would meet for lunch once in while, ... (link)

And once and while gets 51,900, among them:

Technology comes in handy once and while... (link)

Everyone screws up once and while. (link)

... near as thin as girls like the olsen twins. they don't eat "hamburgers every once and while". they have to hardly eat anything to look like that! (link)

5.  Oi!  it then occurred to me to check once and the while (combining in >> and and a >> the), and yes, there are a few occurrences:

There are natives that have evolved to live in damp soils such as Culver's root, Mallows, etc., I water those once and the while and plant them closest to ... (link)

Just keep your ears clean and rinse off your tips every once and the while and you will have no problems whatsoever... (link)

If Jewish invasion and occupation affords an extra loaf once and the while at cost of my children getting murdered by Israeli troops and Jewish degradation ... (link)

6.  At this point I wondered if there were any other candidates for a >> the (or the reverse).  These aren't things you can search for directly.  You have to think of a larger idiom and then search on it.

Well, there are a fair number (a few hundred) of once in the blue moon hits, like this one:

Question 1: How often do you feel your partner doesn't really know who you are? Most of the time. Sometimes. Once in the blue moon. Never. (link)

So no doubt there are a lot more based on other idioms with the indefinite article.

[First version posted to ADS-L 9/1/06. Addendum, 9/6/06: Ron Butters on ADS-L adds one at the time for one at a time.  Easy to find cites, like the politeness advice, "Speak one at the time."]

zwicky at-sign period csli stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 5, 2006 07:07 PM