Lightening vs. Lightning: How to Choose the Right Word

One is a verb meaning to brighten, and the other is a weather phenomenon

Lightning

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The words "lightening" and "lightning" look and sound similar, but their meanings are very different. The former is a verb, while the latter can be either a noun or an adjective.

How to Use "Lightening"

The word "lightening" is the present participle form of the verb "lighten," which means to make lighter or brighter. "Lighten" can also mean to make happier or less serious (as in "lighten the mood").

As a present participle, "lightening" is often used in the continuous tense to indicate simultaneous actions: "The painter mixed some white into the blue, lightening the color." In this sentence, the blue is lightened as the painter adds the color white; both actions—the mixing and the lightening—occur at the same time.

How to Use "Lightning"

The noun "lightning" refers to the flash of light that precedes thunder, the result of electrical activity in the atmosphere. As an adjective, "lightning" describes things that happen—like a flash of lightning—very suddenly or quickly. For example, a runner who outpaces her competitors might be described as moving at a "lightning pace."

Examples

"Lightening" always refers to a change in condition that results in something becoming brighter, less heavy, or less serious than it was before:

  • The sky was lightening as the sun rose over the hill.
  • Her son helped carry some of the groceries home, lightening her heavy load.
  • Putting on a funny movie is one way of lightening the mood.

As a noun, "lightning" refers to the atmospheric phenomenon that produces a bolt of light in the sky:

  • He saw lightning in the dark clouds; a few seconds later he heard thunder.

"Lightning" can also be used as an adjective to describe lightning-related nouns:

  • A narrow lightning rod was positioned at the top of the church steeple.
  • The meteorologist reported that a lightning storm was headed their way.

As an adjective, "lightning" can also modify nouns that relate to pacing:

  • When he got the call for help, he rushed away with lightning speed.
  • The conductor raced through the final movement, waving his arms and giving the music a lightning tempo.

How to Remember the Difference

The only difference between "lightning" and "lightening" is a single syllable, but that wasn't always the case. "For several centuries," writes scholar Roy Blount, Jr., "the job of representing aerial bolts of electricity was up in the air, flickering back and forth between lightning and lightening."

The spellings eventually settled, and the two-syllable "lightning" became the word for the electrical phenomenon. To keep the terms straight, remember that lightning appears in the sky for a short moment, and "lightning" has fewer syllables than "lightening."

You can remember the definition of "lightening" by thinking of the rhyming words "brightening" and "whitening." All three of these words refer to a change in state or condition: to make something lighter, brighter, or whiter. If the context calls for a verb, you should use "lightening."

Sources

  • Blount, Roy Jr. "Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof." Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, p. 172.