Is it true that SLEEPY is used before someone goes to bed and HALF-ASLEEP is used not long after the person woke up?

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    How bizarre! Someone has closevoted this question on the grounds that you should have just looked it up in the dictionary! I'm sure there are at least some ELL users with better credentials than me for ruling on the meanings of words, but I'm a native Anglophone with a degree in English Language & Literature, plus quite a bit of my income over a lifetime was for programming a number of different "word games" for British and European publishing houses. And I don't see how you could look up the answer to this question anywhere (apart from my chart, which apparently finds little favour! :) Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 14:25

2 Answers 2



tired and wanting to sleep


not completely awake : very tired

Being sleepy is more about how you feel, while being half-asleep is more about how lucid and conscious you are. A person that's sleepy feels tired but usually can still do things, while someone who's half-asleep is either nearly dozing off, or hasn't yet woken up fully.

Either can be used both before and after falling asleep - if you make yourself stay up too long while you're sleepy, you'll probably end up half-asleep on the chair once the fatigue catches up with you. On the other hand, if you didn't sleep well you'll probably be sleepy after you wake up, and if something suddenly wakes you up you might be half-asleep for a while.

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    I believe your attempts to draw a semantic distinction are spurious. It's just that idiomatically, at least some speakers are more likely to use the (far less common overall) form half-asleep of someone becoming more awake, as opposed to becoming more drowsy. Commented Jul 18, 2023 at 12:49
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    @FumbleFingers If I'm sitting in a lecture and dozing off on a chair or daydreaming, I certainly wouldn't find it unidiomatic being called half-asleep, even if I'm not fresh out of bed. And I don't think your charts support your thesis either - all it says to me is that it's rather uncommon to still feel/be sleepy after a night of sleep, but common to behave as if you're still half-asleep. Commented Jul 18, 2023 at 13:31
  • I don't understand your comment, but presumably it makes sense to others, or they wouldn't be upvoting it. Are you saying that me choosing to compare still [sleep / half-asleep isn't likely to distinguish between "not yet fully awake" (after sleeping) and "no longer fully awake" (drowsy/nodding off before retiring)? If so, can you suggest any other adjustment I can make to the search terms? Or is it just that people don't believe there's a tendency to use "half-asleep" more freely of people still in the process of waking up rather than "in anticipation" of going to sleep? Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 13:55
  • Btw - my chart doesn't remotely suggest that "it's rather uncommon to still feel/be sleepy after a night of sleep". In fact, it specifically shows that still sleepy is actually slightly more common than still half-asleep. The reason for showing the chart is that the two words are about equally common after still, despite the fact that in general, half-asleep is very uncommon compared to sleepy. Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 14:00
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    I refer you to T.S.Elliot: "...and when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake." So the half-asleep...wide-awake is how somebody is or at least is acting, rather than how he actually feels: a sentry might legitimately be tired and sleepy but had better not be seen to be half-asleep. Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 17:39

It's actually quite easy to prove that OP's suspicion is perfectly correct. First note this usage chart showing that overall, half-asleep is very uncommon relative to sleepy...

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...then consider the implications of this chart, showing that after still, half-asleep is almost as common as sleepy. Obviously almost all of these will be referring to not long after a person has woke up - it doesn't normally make much sense to say someone is still sleepy if they're about to retire.

enter image description here

I can't offer a convincing explanation for this "usage split" - it's not inherently implicit in either of the alternative expressions, and you obviously won't be wrong if you say you're still sleepy some time after waking up. But undeniably the two terms are used somewhat differently.

  • Don't forget that the first chart includes some more metaphorical uses of "sleepy", while "half-asleep" doesn't have those. For example, "I live in a sleepy backwater." A fairer comparison might be "feeling {sleepy,half-asleep}". Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 12:46
  • I did think about that, but I seriously doubt there would be enough of those "false positive" matches to affect the message of the first chart. I can't get NGrams' arithmetic functions to work these days, but even if I could halve the values for sleepy (to compensate for 50% of all instances being false positives), the chart would still convey the same message. Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 13:41
  • For what it's worth, here's chart #1 comparing feeling sleepy and feeling half-asleep. All it does is make the latter absolutely "flatline" - which anything makes my case stronger! Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 13:45
  • I might be sleepy, or I might feel sleepy, or I might be half-asleep (or half asleep), but I would never feel half-asleep. In my experience "half-asleep" is usually an observation about somebody else.
    – Peter
    Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 14:04
  • @Peter: That's another distinction that means nothing to me. I have no idea how anyone can differentiate I am happy / angry / sad from I feel happy / angry / sad. In such contexts, being and feeling mean the same thing to me (ditto sleepy / half-asleep). But I must admit it would be a bit odd to say I am ignored in any context, whereas I feel ignored is a fairly normal thing to say. Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 14:10

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