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I am trying to understand the way 'to disturb', 'disturbing' and 'to bother' could be used when the subject is not a living being. In my cases, they are used in the meaning that 'it spoils something or causes trouble'.

Do these sentences make sense, can be used and sound natural?

  1. The noise from road traffic disturbed my sleep.
  2. My sleep was disturbed by the air conditioner.
  3. The city buzz disturbs my sleep.
  4. At 7 am, someone turned on the washing machine next to my room. It was disturbing. (with the meaning--> it spoiled my sleep; i couldn't sleep because there was noise.)
  5. The smell of cigarette smoke bothered me. (with the meaning - I didn't like it; I couldn't stand it)
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    Note that It was disturbing would usually be understood as It caused anxiety. For your example #4, It was disruptive more accurately conveys the sense you intend. And overall it's becoming increasingly common today to speak of disrupted sleep [patterns] rather than disturbed sleep [patterns]. Oct 13, 2019 at 15:43
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    "... disturbed my sleep" would make the examples better. You can edit this in.
    – James K
    Oct 13, 2019 at 15:44
  • Thank you! @FumbleFingers, so the sentence 'the noise disrupted my sleep' would sound better than that with 'disturbed'?
    – Ronja
    Oct 13, 2019 at 16:36
  • Wow. The first dictionary I looked at gave three meanings, "Interfere with the normal arrangement or functioning." Or "cause anxiety." Or "interrupt sleep, relaxation, or privacy." Nothing says that the subject or object of the verb must be a human agent: "The wind blowing through the windows disturbed the neatly arranged papers on the desk." Oct 13, 2019 at 16:36
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    For example: The noise from road traffic is bothering [my sleep]. While it's a bit uncommon to hear it used that way, it's not actually wrong. Oct 14, 2019 at 13:52

1 Answer 1

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So, as I can see there has been a lot of discussion of this in comments, but no actual answer, I will attempt to put one together:

I do think that this question is more subtle than can easily be answered by a dictionary. All of the sentences in question are grammatically correct, and sound fairly natural, but some of them may not have exactly the meaning intended. Let's look at each of the suggested sentences, for a start:

The noise from road traffic disturbed my sleep.

This says that the noise caused your sleep to be different (by implication, worse) than normal. It has been suggested that "disrupted" would be a better word here, but that depends a bit on exactly what you mean to convey. When your sleep is "disturbed", it generally implies that you continued to sleep, but that sleep was of poor quality (not normal). However, if your sleep is "disrupted", that implies that your sleep cycle was actually broken (i.e. that you woke up). As such, the two are not completely interchangeable.

However, while it's not really unnatural (it sounds fine), I think it is somewhat less common to say "my sleep was disturbed". In general, it's probably more idiomatic to say something like "Because of the noise, I didn't sleep well" instead..

My sleep was disturbed by the air conditioner.

This is the same thing, just put in the passive voice. It has pretty much the same implications as the previous sentence, with the same caveats.

The city buzz disturbs my sleep.

This is the same thing, but put in the present tense instead of the past tense. It means pretty much the same thing as the previous sentences, but it implies that what you are talking about continues to go on and was not just something that happened in the past. (e.g. "The noise disturbed my sleep (last night)" vs. "The noise disturbs my sleep (every night)")

At 7 am, someone turned on the washing machine next to my room. It was disturbing.

(with the meaning--> it spoiled my sleep; i couldn't sleep because there was noise.)

So here we get into a difference, mainly because you haven't specified "sleep" anywhere. Without that, the implication is that it was "disturbing me", rather than "disturbing my sleep", which is not the same thing. As others have mentioned, saying something is "disturbing" by itself implies that it is unsettling or makes you uneasy in some way ("The pictures of that car accident were disturbing."), which is obviously not what you meant here.

The smell of cigarette smoke bothered me.

(with the meaning - I didn't like it; I couldn't stand it)

This sentence is perfectly natural, and means exactly what you intended.

This is actually a good example, though, of the difference between "disturb" and "bother". "bother" implies causing someone annoyance or hardship, whereas "disturb" implies changing (or moving) something (usually in an undesirable or disorderly way). When applied to people, "disturb" generally means "affecting them emotionally", but that effect is not necessarily annoyance (in fact, as mentioned, it is usually assumed to be uneasiness instead), so the two are not really interchangeable.

"It bothered me" = "it made me annoyed"

"It disturbed me" = "it made me uneasy"

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  • Thank you so much for explaining the usage! :-)
    – Ronja
    Oct 14, 2019 at 11:35

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