Lightening and Lightning

Commonly Confused Words

Bolts of lightning over the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada. (Preserved Light Photography/Getty Images)

The nouns lightening and lightning look and sound alike, but their meanings are different.


The noun lightening means making lighter in weight or changing to a lighter or brighter color.

The noun lightning refers to the flash of light that accompanies thunder. As an adjective, lightning describes things that happen very quickly.


  • The sun, not bleach, was responsible for lightening my hair.
  • "Bigger kids walked alongside the wagon, lightening the load a little for the poor oxen."
    (Steve Sheinkin, Which Way to the Wild West? Roaring Book Press, 2010)
  • A church steeple with a lightning rod on top seems to show a lack of confidence.
  • "The man in black was still there, sailing like lightning toward the cliffs."

Usage Note

"A small syllable more or less can make a big difference. For centuries, the job of representing aerial bolts of electricity was up in the air, flickering back and forth between lightning and lightening. . . . Like brightening, whitening, thickening, sickening, stiffening--and even shortening and hastening--lightening held on to that extra beat in the middle. Accordingly, it settled into the more leisurely work of making things lighter. Nothing's quicker than lightning, which is why it's so hard (unlike bleach, say) to catch in a bottle."
(Roy Blount, Jr., Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)


(a) She considered _____ her load by donating her winter clothes to charity.

(b) Electricity is really just organized _____.

Answers to Practice Exercises

Answers to Practice Exercises: Lightening and Lightning

(a) She considered lightening her load by donating her winter clothes to charity.

(b) Electricity is really just organized lightning.