When Muhammad Ali said that he “handcuffed lightning,” he was not referring to dying his hair blonde. He was referring to a fast flash of great electrical power that he was able to harness and tame for his own purposes, speaking symbolically of his boxing prowess. He did not handcuff “lightening.” It’s just one letter, but it makes a world of difference.
“Lightning” can also be used as an adjective to describe something that is very fast. This is more in a figurative sense and makes direct reference back to the electrical discharge from the sky described above. You might say that a new Ferrari is lightning fast.
Lightening, on the other hand, is an entirely different word. It is the gerund of the verb “to lighten.” Basically, a gerund is when you add the -ing to the end of a verb so that it can be used as a noun. That’s the same as when you talk about the running of the bulls in Spain. “Run” is a verb, but “running” (in this case) is used as a noun. “Lightening” is also the present participle of “to lighten.” That’s the same as when you say John is running or we are going.
“To lighten” literally means to make lighter. This could be lighter in color, lighter in weight, or lighter in severity. By taking a few parcels off the cart, George was really able to lighten the load. You can also lighten the mood, as in to make the tone more cheerful and less serious.
In this way, the lightning storm is literally lightening the night sky… but the reverse would not be true.
Do you have a suggestion for a future Grammar 101? If I get enough submissions, perhaps I’ll gather them up for lightning round of grammatical clarification.