Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Lightning or lightening?

with 13 comments

Lightning over Pentagon City in Arlington, Vir...
Image via Wikipedia

“Lightning” is that flashing stuff in the sky.

“Lightening” means to lighten in colour or weight.

However, “lightning” also means “very fast”. It’s a very common mistake to use “lightening” when “lightning” should be used, as the following examples show:

The consequence is that they try to make the entire government machine move at the same lightening speed as the news cycle. (From the UK newspaper, The Independent)

Dissent has focused on the bank’s $50bn (£31.2bn) deal to buy Merrill Lynch, which Lewis negotiated at lightening speed over a weekend in September last year… (From the UK newspaper, the Guardian)

Interestingly, “lightning” is a historical contraction of “lightening” and was once spelt “light’ning”.

More commonly confused words and phrases


13 Responses

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  1. Yet peroxide is lightening in a bottle.

    Michael Farrell

    25/03/2010 at 3:41 pm

    • I bow to your superior knowledge on that one.


      25/03/2010 at 4:08 pm

      • I’m just trying to highlight a few things.

        Michael Farrell

        25/03/2010 at 4:16 pm

  2. Hi Deborah: I like the old-fashioned version of “light’ning” maybe because it sounds vaguely romantic. In Shelley’s poem, “To a Skylark” he writes:

    “In the golden light’ning
    Of the sunken sun,
    O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
    Thou dost float and run,
    Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.”

    Nobody writes like those Brits. Except perhaps Flaubert. 🙂

    Jo-Anne Moore

    25/03/2010 at 6:45 pm

    • Hi, Jo-Anne — how beautiful! Thanks so much for taking the time to share that here.


      25/03/2010 at 6:47 pm

      • You’re welcome! This is a wonderful blog and apart from being a very stimulating place for people interested in discussing the finer points of english grammar, it would be a great resource for ESL learners. By the way, here’s a quick question: my spell check is picking up on the fact that I haven’t capitalized ‘english’..uh oh. Should I have? I’m a self-confessed dilettante with english (?) grammar, but hope to improve. Thanks again.

        Jo-Anne Moore

        26/03/2010 at 10:54 pm

        • Hi, Jo-Anne — thanks for your kind and encouraging words which I very much appreciate. It’s always good to see you here.

          By the way, you are right, ‘English’ should take a capital letter. I can’t think of any circumstance where it wouldn’t.


          27/03/2010 at 8:23 am

          • Thanks Deborah. I think I know the root of my problem. I work in French as well and of course, there are different rules, one of which is not to capitalize in situations like this. I’m often in a muddle if I’m switching back and forth. Thanks again.

            Jo-Anne Moore

            27/03/2010 at 11:41 am

            • No problem, you’re welcome!


              27/03/2010 at 5:52 pm

  3. As always, an interesting tip!

    ‘The lightning bolt of comprehension you get after reading this lesson will start lightening your confusion’


    29/03/2010 at 7:09 am

    • Hi! Thanks, dreamlivedream — you’re very welcome here. I like your lightning/lightening sentence — a good memory aid.


      29/03/2010 at 7:34 am

  4. Many years ago, I once made the embarrassing mistake of writing, “Lightening strikes twice at Royal” in a headline. This was in the days before spell check. Fortunately, my editor corrected it before it wound up in print.


    05/04/2010 at 8:06 pm

    • Hi, Dawn — welcome! Maybe it wouldn’t have even been picked up by a spell check as both are words? It’s a good way to learn, though — nearly seeing a mistake in print. I’m not so keen on learning from mistakes that actually appear in print! Thanks for taking the time to comment.


      05/04/2010 at 8:11 pm

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