Lightning vs Lightening: What’s the Difference?

Mark Twain is famous for saying, “The right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Given that this famous quote involves one of today’s words, I thought I would include it as a reminder that correct word choice is important and makes a meaningful difference in our written work.

What is the Difference Between Lightning and Lightening?

In this post, I will compare lightning vs. lightening. I will outline the definition of each word and explain the word’s function within a sentence. I will illustrate how each word is used in a sentence with outside examples from newspapers and magazines.

After reading this post, you won’t ever again wonder, “Is it spelled lightening or lightning?”

When to Use Lightning?

lightning versus lightening grammarWhat does lightning mean? Lightning can be both a noun and an adjective.

Lightning as a noun. As a noun, lightning refers to the electric discharge we see in the atmosphere during thunderstorms. These are bright flashes of light in the sky.

Light as an adjective. As an adjective, lightning refers to something with remarkable speed or suddenness.

  • He fixed my car with lightning speed.

When to Use Lightening

lightening versus lightning meaningWhat does lightening mean? Lightening is the present participle of the verb lighten, which is defined as to make light or lighter; illuminate or brighten.

  • I think I will lighten my hair this summer.
  • I started lightening the shade of my car.

In this sense, lightening is the opposite of darkening.

Lightening can also mean to become lighter in weight, pressure, or severity.

  • I have been lightening up my diet the past few weeks.
  • He tried to lighten the mood with a joke.
  • Don’t be so serious. Lighten up.

Examples

  • More than 140 red and infrared LED lights within the mask bathe the skin in light that helps reduce wrinkles. Future masks for skin lightening and acne will incorporate green and blue LEDs, respectively. –USA Today
  • A California high school couple said they survived getting hit by lightning Thursday because they were holding hands. –Daily News
  • The current Yankees designated hitter certainly has won over Reggie Jackson, who knows how a lightning rod feels. –Newsday

Trick to Remember the Difference

Here is a helpful trick to remember lightening vs. lightning. Use these to check yourself when you aren’t sure which spelling is correct.

Check one: Since a bolt of lightning usually zaps the life out of whatever it hits, think of the lightning bolt zapping the “e” out of the word.

Check two: Lightening is to lighten something. It is the opposite of darken or darkening. This is easy to remember because the word lighten in is lightening.

You could also remember this mnemonic sentence.

  • The lightning is lightening the darkened night sky.

Summary

Is it lightning or lightening? You can lighten something with bleach, but you cannot lightning it.

Lightening is a verb and is the opposite of darkening.

Lightning is a noun and adjective, and refers to a bolt of light from the sky.

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