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I've got a sentence from a coursebook which goes: "I usually sleep early on Saturdays". What can it possibly mean?

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    That sounds like a typo to me. At least in American English it is very unnatural. It might mean that the speaker usually goes to bed earlier than normal on Saturdays. "I usually go to sleep early on Saturdays." Even that sounds less natural than, "I usually go to bed early on Saturdays."
    – Preston
    May 27, 2014 at 10:21
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    On the other hand, if the person usually wakes up later than normal on Saturday mornings they may "sleep in on Saturdays"
    – Preston
    May 27, 2014 at 10:24
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    It is grammatically fine, and all the words make sense, but without some context to clarify it, I find no intelligible meaning in the sentence.
    – Colin Fine
    May 27, 2014 at 11:53
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    This sounds like a back-formation from the idiom "sleep late"... but since "sleep early" is not an established idiom itself, I agree that either this was an editing mistake, or the book's author created an "error" deliberately for discussion or as a counterexample.
    – keshlam
    May 27, 2014 at 12:50
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    @Mari-LouA there is no context because there are just separate sentences; the task of the exercise is to put the verbs in brackets into present simple or present continuous - so, as you can see, it has nothing to do with the lexical unit I'm talking about.the book is New Round-Up 3 by Virginia Evans. I've consulted Martin Parrott's Grammar for English Language Teachers, - found it rather helpful.
    – Yukatan
    May 28, 2014 at 15:41

2 Answers 2

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I have to voice complete disagreement with everyone who has commented that the sentence is nonsensical despite its structural integrity. As a native American English speaker from the Northeast going to college in the South, it is perfectly common for both myself and my peers to say "sleep" in place of "go to sleep" in conversation.

As evidence, a Google Books search for "sleep early" that excludes "went to", "go to", "goes to", "going to" prefacing the phrase returns 1300+ results at the time of this post. Searching Google gives 134,000 results (of which, admittedly, many are not good examples, among which is an article titled "How to Sleep Early for a Night Owl" and an article where a commenter notes he/she does not seem to be "wired to sleep early".

I do agree that it would be technically much more appropriate to say

I usually go to sleep early on Saturdays.

as opposed to

I sleep early on Saturdays.

because it is unclear whether "early" is referring to sleep as in going to sleep or sleep as in being in the state of being asleep, particularly when the latter is read literally. Idiomatically, however, the latter is fairly commonly used and very commonly understood. The word "crash" is also used in place of "sleep" quite commonly, like so:

I crash early on Saturdays.

which means exactly the same thing. In context, "crash" may be more appropriate for emphasizing just how tired an individual is, but it carries no such connotations by itself.

The reason I mention this is because it is possible - although I have no way of really knowing this - that due to "crash", which is a much more instantaneous and less ambiguous word, being used as a synonym for "sleep", the verb "sleep" has, at least in the vernacular, come to refer to the action of going to sleep.

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    There is also an english.SE thread on this where a Northeast US and an Australian English speaker both note that this usage of "sleep" is perfectly acceptable.
    – Pockets
    May 27, 2014 at 23:06
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    I honestly think half the problem is the word "Saturday". Substitute, say, "Tuesday" -- I sleep early on Tuesdays. -- and the problem goes away. Going to bed early on Saturdays? Surely that can't be what the speaker meant! The mind bounces off the notion in incredulity. May 28, 2014 at 0:15
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    @Yukatan: Presumably you "unaccepted" my answer because you don't like the fact that I'm dismissive of your source. But the fact of the matter is if you said I usually sleep early on weekdays most Anglophones (NE Am or anywhere else) would find this "odd", and many would be unsure whether you meant you went to bed early or you got up early (though in practice the one implies the other for 4 out of 5 days). Check Google Books for "I/he/they/etc. sleep early/late on" (which will have very few false matches) to underline the reason for the voting pattern on this page. May 28, 2014 at 11:57
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    @Yukatan: Well since Samuel is a native speaker, I can hardly disagree with his claim that this usage is perfectly common for both him and his peers. But taking Anglophones as a whole, there's no doubt this is a minority position. On the "normal / ambiguous / unnatural / unacceptable" scale, it's pretty obvious most of us are much further to the right. You should certainly bear that in mind when considering the "idiomatic status" of any other examples in your coursebook. May 28, 2014 at 14:02
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    @Yukatan, I suggest you take a look at the thread I opened on english.SE in response to this particular question. There is undoubtedly disagreement as to whether using "sleep" to mean "go to sleep" is an acceptable use of the verb, as there are clearly populations among which this is acceptable and among which this is not. The intent of my answer was not so much as to decry FumbleFingers but rather to emphasize this duality.
    – Pockets
    May 31, 2014 at 15:29
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Per Preston's comment, OP's example is "unnatural" - and since it's not an idiomatic usage, we can't say it has a single fixed unambiguous meaning. The two possibilities are...

1: "I usually go to sleep early on Saturdays"
Meaning: "on Saturday night I go to bed early"
Native speakers would almost never omit go to in the above construction, but (rarely) it might occur in a "non-habitual" context...
“There will be music until God knows how late,” Selma was saying. “So we must sleep early tonight".

2: [whimsical reversal of] "I usually sleep late on Saturdays"
Meaning: "on Saturday morning I get up early"
Because of potential confusion with #1 above, this form would be unlikely unless there was a clear contextual contrast with the idiomatically standard late version.

If OP's example was known for certain to have been produced by a native speaker, #1 would be the most likely interpretation if it was from more than a century ago. If more recent, it's probably #2.


But given both of those are so unlikely, and taking account of other howlers I've seen cited from online coursework here and on ELU, I would say the only real meaning to be extracted from OP's citation is that his source material came from a non-native speaker. My recommendation would be to discard it.

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  • Agreed on all points. It's a fine sentence, structurally. I just don't know what it is supposed to mean.
    – Preston
    May 27, 2014 at 12:13
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    [whimsical reversal of] "I usually sleep late on Saturdays" Meaning: "on Saturday morning I get up early" - I don't get it how 'sleep late' can mean "on Saturday morning I get up early" when "sleep late" actually means to sleep more than one normally would.. @FumbleFingers
    – Yukatan
    May 27, 2014 at 12:37
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    @Yukatan, you are correct that Sleep late means I sleep longer than usual and get up later than usual; but we are defining Sleep Early as the reverse of sleep late, so Sleep Early is what means to sleep less than usual and get up sooner than usual.
    – Hellion
    May 27, 2014 at 15:11
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    @Preston: Given that OP says it's from a "coursebook", it's more or less certain that what it "means" is as described in my final paragraph. That's because although it's possible to imagine a native speaker using those words in either of the senses I've given, in practice they would never cite it as an example in an educational context. It looks to me like a daft example from a non-native speaker who shouldn't be teaching English, but I can't 100% rule out the possibility that some Indian English speakers may find it acceptable. May 27, 2014 at 15:31
  • I am a native speaker from Southern California who now lives in the Northeast, and to me, I sleep around midnight is as natural as I have to catch the 8:04 train because I work at 9 or I vacation in Mexico most winters. Perhaps it relates to whether you think of sleep as a state or as an activity, as I agree that I class at 3 makes no sense, while I lunch at noon is acceptable but sounds old-fashioned or pretentious.
    – choster
    May 29, 2014 at 18:47

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