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October 13th, 2004

Awoken or awakened? / arguably

by Barbara Wallraff

Carol Bartlett, of Hiawatha, Iowa, writes: “I am halfway through the book ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ and the author has already used the word ‘awoken’ at least four times. I was taught that there is no such word -- the proper word is ‘awakened.’ Am I mistaken?”

Dear Carol: “Awoken” is just unusual, not wrong. It’s one of two possible past participles of the verb “awake,” the other one being “awaked,” which is even more unusual. The past participle is, of course, the form we’re supposed to use with “have” or “has” or “had.” And that’s the way it is used on the very first page of “The Da Vinci Code,” where this appears: “‘Monsieur Langdon?’ a man’s voice said. ‘I hope I have not awoken you?’”

That does seem peculiar, and here’s why: “Awakened,” too, is a perfectly good past participle -- a much more common one. But it’s a form of a different verb, “awaken” (as in, “Have I awakened you?”). There are even two other verbs with essentially the same meaning: “wake” (“Have I waked ...” or “... woken you?”) and “waken” (“Have I wakened you?”). All four of these verbs -- “awake,” “awaken,” “wake” and “waken” -- have been part of English for at least 1,000 years. I don’t suppose we really need all of them, but anything that has survived for a millennium deserves some respect.

The bottom line is that all the forms I’ve given above are acceptable. And yet who can keep them straight? “Awakened” is a good form to keep in mind, because unlike some of the others, it’s not only a past participle but also a simple past tense (“I awakened him” or “He awakened”). You’ll almost never be wrong if you say “awakened,” unless you want to be folksier and use one of these words with “up.” For instance, “Langdon awakened up and smelled the coffee” is terrible, no? But only someone who was writing in his sleep -- not you -- would write that.

Judith B. Glad, of Portland, Ore., writes: “Local radio announcers say ‘So-and-so is arguably the best ...’ or something to that effect. I’ve checked my dictionaries, and they agree that it should be ‘inarguably,’ but maybe I’m missing a shift in the language.

“What recently drove me around the bend was seeing, on the cover of a novel by a woman whom I’ve always admired for her precise and vivid language, a quotation from Publishers Weekly that she is ‘arguably today’s most skillful writer.’”

Dear Judith: Which dictionaries are you using, please? At least the current editions of three popular ones -- the American Heritage, Webster’s New World and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate -- include “arguably.” They say the word means “as can be supported by argument” or the like. Calling someone “arguably today’s most skillful writer” means that’s the opinion of the person saying so, who is aware that others will disagree. Calling someone “inarguably the most skillful” says that anyone who disagrees is wrong. I know that “arguably” is not everyone’s favorite word, because a number of people have written me about it -- but it’s a useful one.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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