Column: Wake, waken, awake and awaken

I woke up this morning ready to tackle a thorny grammar issue – although maybe I wakened this morning. Unless I awoke. Perhaps I awakened?

I came across this quandary last week. I’d be lying if I said I was immediately 100 percent confident about which word I needed. All four words and their various conjugates have roughly the same meaning: to stop being asleep. Their usages, though, can be much more nuanced.

I was delighted to find that I wasn’t the only person struggling with these verbs. As TheFreeDictionary.com writes, “The pairs wake, waken and awake, awaken have formed a bewildering array since the Middle English period. All four words have similar meanings, though there are some differences in use.”

Since I only have a limited amount of space here, I will focus on the most common of the four – “to wake.” The others may get short thrift.

The primary use of “to wake” is as an intransitive verb (a verb with no direct object) meaning “to cease to sleep.” I woke up. She wakes early. Upon waking, I smelled breakfast cooking downstairs.

“To wake” can also be used transitively (e.g., “The thunderstorm woke me up”). This is where things get muddled. All four words can be used transitively to mean “to rouse (someone/something) from sleep.” All four are more or less equally acceptable choices in most circumstances. To help you navigate them, here are a few bullet points:

Only “wake” and “waken,” and typically just “wake,” can be paired with the word “up,” as in, “The alarm woke me up at 6 a.m.”

Although they are not exclusively figurative, “awake” and “awaken” are often used in that sense. E.g., “I awoke to the possibilities,” or “The national anthem awakened their inner patriot.”

In American English at least, “awoke” seems to be used commonly instead of the past tense of “wake” (which can be both “woke” or “waked”) – but, again, never paired with “up.”

As the Oxford Dictionaries notes, “waken” and “awaken” are the most formal of the four words. Use them to seem fancy.

A final thought: To avoid confusion, it would be perfectly acceptable to mentally designate each of the words as either transitive or intransitive only. Or, you could avoid the issue altogether and simply never get out of bed again – at least not until spring, anyway.