May 27, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Awake, awaken, and wake & per se & using the WWW as a reference

Posted in awake/awaken/wake, matriculate, per se, WWW at 8:53 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Awake, awaken, and wake & per se & using the WWW as a reference

A reader writes:

I am writing a paper on sleep disorders, and I was wondering if there was a difference between awake, awaken, and wake and if there were rules for when to use each. I know that this isn’t a grammar issue per se but I was hoping you could help.

First, this kind of language/vocabulary question is perfectly appropriate for the wlut. I was happy to get this question-not because of the particular words, but because it allows me to talk briefly about ‘per se,’ and it gives me an opportunity to remind you about the dangers of using the WWW as a reference.

Let me first answer the question, and get that out of the way. To my astonishment, when I googled “awake or waken,” I found this in the search list: Language Tips: One a day/one per day & awake, awaken, wake, waken …. Language Tips is our web blog, so clearly, I addressed this before-in January as it turns out. I only have a vague recollection of that so let me touch on it again, briefly.

First, they all mean the same thing-to rouse or rise from sleep, and they all can be transitive (that is, they take an object, e.g., I woke the children) and intransitive (that is, they don’t take an object. e.g., I was awakened by the sound of the rain). Wake is often found in combination with up but awake and awaken never use up. Some say that waken and awaken are archaic or literary, and modern writers use wake. I tend to disagree. While I think wake is more common in conversation, I use the other forms as well and don’t hear any awkwardness. What is screwy and confusing about these words is the way you conjugate them:

wake-woke-woken or waked

awake-awoke-awoken or awaked


Go figure.

Now, about per se (pronounced but not spelled persay). It means ‘intrinsically’ or ‘as such’ and comes from the Latin per meaning ‘through’ or ‘by’ and se meaning ‘it,’ literally ‘by itself.’ There is nothing incorrect about using per se, but it is weak and adds nothing to your writing. For instance, let’s look at the sentence the reader wrote:

I know that this isn’t a grammar issue per se, but I was hoping you could help.

If you remove the per se, you don’t lose any meaning, but you have created a stronger sentence:

I know that this isn’t a grammar issue, but I was hoping you could help.

I found a couple of quotes that use per se:

“Ignorance per se is not nearly as dangerous as ignorance of ignorance.”
Sydney J. Harris (American Journalist and Author, 1917-1986)

“A good writer is not, per se, a good book critic. No more so than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender.”
Jim Bishop (American Writer, 1907-1987)

I think both quotes would be improved and strengthened by the elimination of per se:

“Ignorance is not nearly as dangerous as ignorance of ignorance.”

“A good writer is not a good book critic. No more so than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender.”

By the way, if you do use per se (and I am saying, don’t use it), note that Mr. Bishop has the punctuation wrong. Per se takes no punctuation, so the commas with which he surrounds it are incorrect.

Finally, in this multipurpose tip, I want to quickly caution you about relying on the WWW for accurate information. Please don’t, I am constantly amazed by the amount of misinformation that is out there. When looking into awake and wake, I found this at; it’s not wrong per se (only kidding), but it did make me laugh.

Q: What is the difference between awake and wake?

A: Wake is a part of a funeral rituals-to hold a vigil over a corpse before burial or cremation, while awake means fully conscious and not asleep.

So there you have it.

Tip 2: Matriculate

I find it hard to believe that I haven’t written about matriculate before, but now, it being graduation season, I am hearing it misused on a regular basis.

I’m not sure what college he is going to, but he matriculated from high school with honors. WRONG

Matriculate does not mean graduate; on the contrary, it means to enroll or be admitted. Here are some examples (some tongue in cheek) I found on-line.

He matriculated in two years and then spent three years in Modern Languages. WRONG

“Just keep matriculatin’ the ball down the field, boys.” Hank Stram (Football coach, 1924-2005) WRONG

Matriculate your essay, and correct your grammar mistakes, then I will take another look at it. WRONG

During the graduation ceremonies, Jack couldn’t help but think of the first time that he and Stephanie matriculated. WELL,…

He matriculated to Pitt where he will study biology. RIGHT

Incidentally, one matriculates ‘to’ or ‘at’ an institution, but one matriculates ‘in’ a program.



  1. Barbara Bennett said,

    “…Jack couldn’t help but think …”?! How about a few words on that redundancy. “Jack couldn’t help thinking” or “Jack couldn’t but think”—one or the other, but not both.


  2. Aubrey said,

    Thank you for the Section on ‘matriculate’. I work in Higher Education and I hear colleagues use it incorrectly all the time. I actually had a superior correct me one time when I was using it to mean ‘enroll’. Drives me crazy!

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