Grammar Guerilla: Wake, Woke, Woken And Transitive And Intransitive Verbs

Guerilla-GorillaThe widespread use of woke, the past tense of wake, as an adjective is ungrammatical but there are other issues with the use of forms of wake. The conjugation of wake is:

wake (present): It is time to wake up and smell the coffee.
woke (past): I woke up and went to work.
woken (perfect) She had awoken earlier that morning.

Then there is the close relative, awaken. Its conjugation is the same but some grammarians take it as a different kind of verb than wake. Here we must distinguish between the transitive and intransitive. I have struggled with this since Bob Gorman first tried to explain it to me in 1982. As I understand it, a transitive verb does something to a direct object. The action or a property is transferred from the subject to the object. A transitive verb may be passive or active. Ed Good’s article on (despite the blizzard of annoying ads) is helpful. Joe ht the ball or The ball was hit by Joe both use a transitive verb (to hit). The first is in the active voice. The second is in the passive voice. The action is transferred from Joe, the subject of the verb, to the ball, which is the object of the verb. An intransitive verb needs a preposition to transfer the action to the object. Good uses the example of runs. It may be used transitively, e.g., She runs the company or intransitively, She runs for her health. The intransitive use requires a preposition.

Now, let us return to wake, woke, woken (awake, awoke, awoken). By the way, return may be used transitively or intransitively. Transitive: He returned the book to the library. Intransitive: She returned for more instruction. Good has a helpful chart here too.

So, there are two questions to answer when using forms of wake or awake: which tense is intended and is the verb being used transitively or intransitively? Grammarians disagree as to whether we should assign awake solely to the intransitive category and wake to the transitive. In 1922, Henry Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press), wrote:

Awake, awaken, wake, waken.

Awake has past awoke, rarely awaked, and p.p. awaked sometimes awoken and rarely awoke; woke has past woke, rarely (and that usually in transitive sense) waked, and p.p. waked, rarely woke or woken; awaken and waken have -ed.


Distinction between the forms is difficult but with regard to modern usage certain points may be made: (1) Wake is the ordinary work verb (You will wake the baby; Something woke me up; I should like to waked by 7:30; Wake the echoes), for which the others are substituted to add dignity or formality or to suit the metre as in (3) or (5) below. (2) Wake alone has (and that chiefly in waking) the sense be or remain awake (Sleeping or waking; In our waking hours.) (3) Awake and awaken are usually preferred to the others in figurative senses (When they awoke, or were awakened, to their danger; This at once awakened suspicion; The national spirit awoke or was awakened; A rude awakening). (4) Waken and awaken tend to be restricted to the transitive sense; when he wakens is rarer for when he wakes than that will waken him for that will wake him. (5) In the passive, awaken and waken are often preferred to awake and wake, perhaps owing to uncertainty about the p.p. forms of the latter pair; it wakened me is rare for it woke or waked me, but I was wakened by it is common for I was waked for woke or woken by it; see also the alternative forms in (3) above. (6) Up is very commonly appended to wake, rarely to waken, and never to awake and awaken. [NB: p.p. = past or passive participle]

The third edition (1996) of Fowler’s Modern English Usage seems more ambivalent about the correct usage than Fowler himself was nearly a century ago. Fowler’s usage still seems like a good baseline from which to start.

What about the adjectival use of woke? If Fowler is to be believed, then the correct form would be I have been awakened. This is what is meant by the expression wokeShe is woke is slang from the American South and has been widely used by speakers and writers in the US for decades, if not longer. It is improper but English slang is improper by definition. When you use it be sure that you realize that it is non-standard and that you are doing so deliberately. The social significance of woke is a topic for another essay.


    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. I like to refer to those who have abandoned the “woke”/”social justice” movement (or whatever it is) as “awakened.”

  2. “Intransitive: He was awakened by the storm.

    Transitive: She awakened early”.

    Dr Clark, surely it’s the other way round (and please feel free to delete this comment once you’ve made the correction)?

    Transitive passive: He was awakened by the storm.

    Intransitive: She awakened early.

  3. Never minding the misuse of “woke” as an adjective in the form of slang (or even a euphemism?) for the moment, why must a Southern/urban slang term become the popular expression for something that might otherwise rightly be referred to as an “awakening” or simply “awakened??” It’s as though the majority culture is more than happy to adopt street talk as its moniker when all that does is provide evidence of its mass ignorance.

    • George,

      Woke in Southern, Black slang goes back to the early part of the 20th century. It didn’t mean then what it has come to mean now. Like the word racism, to be woke has been radically re-defined. It originally meant, someone who has become aware that he is being deprived of his basic human rights. It arose as slang does, in casual speech. I’ve no objection to slang that it clear and useful. Even Fowler recognized that some expressions are more suited for formal use and some for informal use. Slang is on the far end of the informal scale.

      Slang has its uses and place. It can be pointed and powerful when used judiciously and the same is true for carefully chosen, formal expressions.

    • RSC- while I understand and agree with you to a certain extent, the point I’d like to make is why does a slang term have to become a popular culture euphemism (since it’s not proper English) when normal English usage would work just fine.

      In the mid-90’s there was an attempt by a teacher in Oakland, CA, to offer a course in “ebonics,” that is, to teach students the sub-culture language of “street-talk” or “urban slang” as an alternative language. As I recall, that attempt was defeated, yet here we are in the third decade of the following century, bowing down to slang terms as acceptable by the mass population. Is that a good thing? I can think of some slang terms that I learned growing up that I not only would consider inappropriate for regular use in dialog with a mass audience, but down right vulgar in many cases. To twist a verb into an adjective in order to satisfy the speech demands of recent generations just seems wrong to me.

      • George,

        I take relatively strong approach to prescriptive grammar (contra those who will not have any fixed rules) but I recognize that language is organic. It develops at different times and in different contexts. To put a fine point on it, when black Americans generally but especially in the South were not permitted to attend schools or were sent to segregated schools with dilapidated facilities or if they were sent out to the fields to work as sharecroppers under Jim Crow, education was hard to come by.

        BTW, “come by” is a colloquial expression but it fit.

        So, woke arose in a specific context. It carries a certain emotional weight—which is why the radicals have seized it, to try to cover themselves in the achievements of the civil rights movement. Slang can have an emotive power that standard and formal English might not in a given situation. It communicates the a passion or desire born of suffering or other exigent circumstances.

    • Yeah. Kind of like “Solidarność” founded in the Polish shipyard at Gdańsk by union leader Lech Wałęsa in the early 80’s. Only Solidarność was proper Polish.

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