As if mornings weren’t difficult enough, English has evolved to give us four tricky little verbs to describe the first thing you do each day: wake, waken, awake, and awaken. And the problems go all the way back to Old English. According to Merriam-Webster, Old English had two similar verbs that meant “to rise from sleep”: awacan (intransitive) and awacian (transitive). The two words, being so similar, affected one another through time until, today, we’ve got four verbs to choose from. And they still haven’t settled down.
The main problem with these verbs is one of choice — that is, having too many choices. More “stable” verbs, both regular and irregular — say, throw, absquatulate — have a one-to-one correlation, allowing us to choose the right form with mathematical accuracy. Once we find the subject, the verb that should be paired with it becomes obvious.
But in this case, not only do we have four different verbs to choose from, but some of them have more than one grammatically acceptable conjugation. And just to make things a little more convoluted, all four can be used both transitively (that is, with a direct or indirect object) and intransitively.
At times like this, you truly have a creative editorial choice to make based on your understanding of the writer, the audience, and the expectations of the text and on your own ear for language.
But enough preamble; let’s get to the verbs:
- Present: wake, wakes
- Past: woke/waked
- Past participle: woken/waked/woke
The difficulty of choice arises here in the past and participial forms. Both woke and wake are attributed in the literature for the past tense, though woke is the more common.
I woke (waked) up this morning with a headache. (intransitive)
She woke (waked) the computer and started working again. (transitive)
Similarly, both woken and waked are standard participles. Woken is more common, but waked as a participle doesn’t sound as jarring to my ear as waked in simple past tense.
The Kraken has been woken (waked) from its millennium-long slumber.
They were being woken (waked) by the enemies of the Sandman.
Barron’s 501 English Verbs, 3e, prefers waked as both the past tense and the participle, with a note about woke and woken. ESL learners relying on this book, then, may be internalizing the less common usage.
Merriam-Webster also lists woke as a possible participle. I recommend you avoid such a construction except when you’re using woke in the newer sense of “becoming disillusioned to the inherent unfairness of the system.”
Lastly, the sense of wake as a vigil over the recently dead also gives rise to a verb to describe that act. Similar to how hang becomes a regular verb (hanged) when it indicates an execution (the link to death might help you remember), wake becomes regular as well. A family waked a lost loved one, for example; saying the family woke a lost loved one is something entirely different.
Still, it does sound odd, so one is more likely to attend a wake than to wake the dead.
- Present: waken, wakens
- Past: wakened
- Past participle: wakened
Waken is a regular verb, meaning that you add -s, -ed, and -ing just like any other common verb, such as add and report. There’s nothing confusing about this one, and it can be both transitive and intransitive.
He wakens to the sound of bees singing.
Johnny inadvertently wakened the Great Apple Beast of Wyoming.
- Present: awake, awakes
- Past: awoke/awaked
- Past participle: awoken/awaked
501 English Verbs notes that both forms of the past tense, awoke and awaked, as well as both participial forms, awoken and awaked, are standard, though not all dictionaries agree, and Barron’s prefers awaked for both. Awoke is certainly more common than awaked, though.
Awake can be used both transitively and intransitively, though I think you’ll find that the intransitive feels more comfortable.
They awoke (awaked) at first light.
Lonny the demon was awoken (awaked) by the vizier’s bumbling.
- Present: awaken, awakens
- Past: awakened
- Past participle: awakened
Like waken, awaken is a regular verb, making it a shortcut of sorts. Although it won’t be the best verb every time, it is the easiest to conjugate and will sound perfectly natural in nearly every situation. As always, let your ear be the guide.
The miser awakens early every morning just to complain about my coffee before I leave for work.
The princess was awakened with a kiss.
These four verbs are largely synonymous. As a copy editor, you get to (or have to) make that choice:
Lonny’s sister Dorrie was awaked/awakened/awoken/waked/wakened/woke/woken by her brother’s legendary borborygmus.
There is an argument for using each one of those verbs in that sentence. Let your ear and your experience guide you toward the most sonorous choice. It may come down to an almost musical choice: either a more vowel-laden and multisyllabic verb or a shorter, more percussive one.
- Only wake pairs idiomatically with up, but that up is not always necessary (which isn’t to say that including it is wrong). Sleeping Beauty could wake up after a kiss, but she wouldn’t *awaken up or *awake up.
- More than one source claims that the verbs beginning with A are used more often in figurative senses than those beginning with W — you wake/waken a person but awake/awaken a dream. Your mileage may vary.