See this cartoon at 0:10.

A bulldog was asleep.

While cat Tom walked on tiptoe by the bulldog, the bulldog happened to grab cat Tom by the leg by accident "in unconsciousness".

I don't know which word should I use, "in unconsciousness" or "in his dream" or "on instinctive reaction" or something.

How do we express someone does something unconsciously while he/she is asleep?

5 Answers 5


The medical term for this is parasomnia. If you suffer from parasomnia, you might move around, talk, or do unusual things during sleep. Other people might think you’re awake, but you’re actually unconscious.

The term used by most lay people is in [his] sleep. As this NGram Graph shows, the expression is reasonably common. Here is a typical example:

But it was not many minutes before he began to moan and toss himself in his sleep, setting Gabriel and Raphael wondering: What has befallen our brother? - The collected stories of George Moore

  • 3
    Note that any possessive pronoun works in place of ‘his’, though third-person personal forms seem to be the most common usage. Apr 1, 2021 at 15:29

JavaLatte’s answer of “in one’s sleep” is the best answer to this in general. It is understood that anything done asleep is done unconsciously. It is also the best formulation available to describe the dog grabbing Tom in the cartoon.

However, it is also worth noting the common word “sleepwalk,” a verb meaning

  1. (intransitive) To walk and/or perform other actions while sleeping; to somnambulate.

(Wiktionary on “sleepwalk”)

Per ngrams, “sleepwalk” is much more common than “walk in his sleep.”¹ And using “sleep-” as a prefix is somewhat productive, that is, we sometimes see other verbs use it as a modifier to also mean that the action is done while asleep. “Sleeptalk” (or “sleep-talk” or “sleep talk”) is common enough to be the primary title of the relevant Wikpedia article, for example.²

However, “sleepwalk” is an intransitive verb, and so are the words that use “sleep-” in this analogous manner. That means you can say “he was sleeptalking,” but you can’t say “he sleeptalked the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech from Julius Caesar,” for that you would say “he delivered the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech from Julius Caesar in his sleep.”³

Which means that “sleepgrab” isn’t a thing, and isn’t going to be. You can’t say “the dog sleepgrabbed Tom,” and “the dog sleepgrabbed” doesn’t actually make much sense. So “sleepgrab” isn’t a word that’s going to work for English speakers. However, for intransitive verbs, it might work, and it may be worth considering such a formulation, seeing if it’s been used before, etc.

  1. And the margin is vast enough that I don’t feel much need to try other pronouns.

  2. But it is also uncommon enough that Firefox flags it as a spelling error for me—then again, it also does that with “somnambulate,” though oddly not “somniloquy.”

  3. Note the existence of an idiomatic phrase “one could [...] in one’s sleep,” meaning that one has so thoroughly mastered a process and memorized its steps that one need not be consciously aware in order to perform them. Such idiomatic usage isn’t generally intended literally, it’s just a figurative indication of a high degree of skill. In the case of my example character above, we don’t say he could deliver the speech in his sleep—we say he actually did. That takes it away from the idiom and makes it a more typical, literal statement of fact.

  • 1
    While not an idiom per-se, I think the vast majority of people would understand the construct "the dog sleep-grabbed him".
    – Kevin
    Apr 1, 2021 at 17:51
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    Yes, I think it's fair to say sleep-[verb] is a potentially "productive" construction. Riffing off "pocket-dial", I checked Google Books, and wasn't surprised to find possibly I sleep-dialed and only dreamed up the conversation that followed. Apr 1, 2021 at 17:55
  • @Kevin Sounds weird to me, but yes, certainly comprehensible.
    – KRyan
    Apr 1, 2021 at 17:55
  • @FumbleFingers Ooh, and “sleep-dialed” sounds like a strong use-case for a transitive sense; I can easily see “I sleep-dialed her” and it doesn’t sound “weird” to me like “sleep-grabbed” does. I’ll think about that one.
    – KRyan
    Apr 1, 2021 at 17:56
  • 1
    I think the key point there is it's "productive". So even if you've never seen some particular combination (such as "sleep-grabbed"), at least you'd probably understand what sense was intended. But "sleep-dialed" gains a bit of credibility from pocket-dialed anyway. Apr 1, 2021 at 18:03

The closest word is likely "somnambulatory " -- carried out while sleepwalking.

Since the dog was not actually sleep walking, it might be better to say something like

the bulldog thrashed in its sleep and happened to grab cat Tom by the leg

that specifies what the dog was doing.

  • Great, but I am wondering if we could say "snap", for example, "the bulldog snapped in the air in its sleep and happened to grab cat Tom by the leg"?
    – Tom
    Apr 1, 2021 at 3:46
  • 3
    Most English speakers probably go through their entire life without using that word to describe a Tom and Jerry cartoon sleep gag. It begs the question, was the OP asking for a technical term or something simpler?
    – m_a_s
    Apr 1, 2021 at 6:11
  • 2
    @Tom No, to snap means to bite, or at least a sudden, sharp motion.
    – stangdon
    Apr 1, 2021 at 11:23
  • I think "snapped at the air" would be better. "Snap" can also mean broke under tension, so "snapped in the air" sounds a bit like the bulldog broke in two while levitating. Apr 2, 2021 at 9:35

The sentence could read as follows:

While Tom walked on tiptoe by the bulldog, the bulldog happened to accidentally grab Tom by the leg while unconscious.

You could also use "while asleep", "as he slept", etc.

  • That structure would be a bit ambiguous -- who was unconscious, the bulldog or Tom? "the sleeping bulldog, while thrashing about, happened to accidentally grab Tom by the leg" might be better.
    – Phil Perry
    Apr 1, 2021 at 18:03
  • @PhilPerry Did you not watch the video? The OP was asking about how to phrase the concept of someone doing something "in unconsciousness".
    – m_a_s
    Apr 1, 2021 at 19:05
  • it should not be necessary to watch the video in question. I'm stating that while unconscious is ambiguous for someone who has not seen the clip. It does not make it clear who was unconscious, and the whole point of the sentence is to eliminate the need to see the clip to understand what's going on.
    – Phil Perry
    Apr 4, 2021 at 14:53
  • @PhilPerry Seriously? By your logic it's not necessary to read the OP's query either. You can live in your little bubble if you want. However, if you want to understand the context of the OP's question, watching the video is essential.
    – m_a_s
    Apr 5, 2021 at 1:17
  • if you are trying to describe the action to someone who has not seen, cannot see, or will not see the clip; it is necessary to be unambiguous. Your description leaves it unclear who was unconscious. I am most assuredly not living in a little bubble, and care not for insults, so this conversation is at an end.
    – Phil Perry
    Apr 6, 2021 at 2:11

The next words are related with walking while you are asleep: sleepwalking, somnambulism, somnambulation, noctambulism, noctambulation (walking by a person who is asleep)


If the bull dog was not walking, then I'd suggest this phrase: in spite of himself

  • 2
    hmm, I don't know if I'd say "Spike grabbed Tom by the leg in spite of himself" to express that he was asleep. Apr 1, 2021 at 12:53
  • "in spite of oneself" could mean generally "not knowingly"
    – gomadeng
    Apr 1, 2021 at 13:49
  • 2
    "in spite of [one]self" is not generally used to indicate "not knowingly". It would be more of a conscious and deliberate action, while knowing it was not a proper thing to do -- emotion or haste got the upper hand.
    – Phil Perry
    Apr 1, 2021 at 18:05
  • Thx. Oxford Idioms Dictionary for Learners of English : (do something) in spite of yourself =(do something) even though you do not want or expect to
    – gomadeng
    Apr 2, 2021 at 6:57

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