I see a sentence which is "the alarm went off while I was asleep", but I'm not quite sure the meaning of it. Because I see the explanation of the phrase "went off" in my dictionary seems in contradiction: One is running suddenly,another one is stop running

So in this sentence, is the alarm ringing or not?

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    Why don't you use another dictionary? See Oald go off no. 3: the alarm went off. oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/… – rogermue Feb 4 '16 at 14:09
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    That sentence would mean the alarm activated and rang while I was asleep in daily, standard situations using unironic language. – GoDucks Feb 4 '16 at 17:04
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    I find it intriguing that this entire sentence can be interpreted in two ways. 1) I was asleep when the alarm went off, but it did not wake me. 2) I was asleep and was woken by the alarm going off. English!!! – Stephan Bijzitter Feb 4 '16 at 20:33
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    Stephan, this sentence says nothing about the alarm waking or not waking the person. It only says that the alarm went off, and that the person was sleeping when it did so. – Yay295 Feb 5 '16 at 0:10
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    @StephanBijzitter It does require tough, thorough, thought though. – Zymus Feb 5 '16 at 2:39

True, off can mean "inactive, deactivated" or it can mean "active, activated, in motion, moving from a state or point of stasis". (I am attempting to be as general and as vague as possible there, to accommodate a wide range of particular meanings.)

off combines with verbs to form collocations (run off, go off, set off, fly off, blast off, shot off, etc).

When used with something which in its normal state is active, "to go off" means to stop functioning:

The TV went off after that lightning bolt.

When used of something which in its normal state is in a state of readiness, "to go off" means to become active suddenly, to go from the ready state to the active state:

The alarm clock went off.

We waited for the 100 meter dash to begin. The starter's gun went off.

Here's one with "dashed off":

The door slammed and the skittish horse dashed off.

Alarms and guns are normally in a state of readiness. A skittish horse is always "ready" to be spooked. All three can be triggered into action.

Then off, off forth on swing / as a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow bend.

The sail caught a sudden breeze and we were off.

Ciao. I'm off.


Here is a definition taken from one dictionary:

Go off:

[INTRANSITIVE] to explode, or to be fired

"The gun went off while he was cleaning it"

In fact, another dictionary explains that this phrase can be directly applied to a noise, and defines it in the following manner:

Go off

(NOISE) If a ​warning ​device goes off, it ​starts to ​ring ​loudly or make a ​loud ​noise:

"The ​alarm should go off ​automatically as soon as ​smoke is ​detected"

"Didn't you ​hear ​your ​alarm ​clock going off this ​morning?"

Therefore, "go off" can have the meaning of something being spontaneously activated or animated, such as with a gun, bomb, or indeed, an alarm.


There's a term for words like that which can be their own antonym: Auto-antonym. Also "Contranym". There's actually a surprising number of them. English is funny that way, allowing for statements like: "The alarm went off again. Can somebody turn the alarm off?" Though they both use the same word "off", the first sentence implies that the alarm is ringing, while the second is asking someone to make it stop.

Unfortunately, there's no consistency with this sort of thing, it all depends on context. For instance, if I said "This switch makes the lights go off." you'd expect that the lights would be off after pushing the switch. But "This switch makes the alarm go off." implies that the alarm will be on after pushing the switch. Another example of things that work like the alarm would be "Pulling the trigger makes the gun go off.", meaning that the gun fires a shot, not that the gun is deactivated. English is a messy language...

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    I don't know if it's my American English, but I would never say the alarm went off to mean it stopped working or deactivated. The same for The TV went off. – GoDucks Feb 4 '16 at 15:28
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    @GoDucks - Exactly my point. But you probably would use it in the second sense of "Can somebody turn the alarm off?", meaning to deactivate it. I don't think there's any US/UK disagreement in this particular case... – Darrel Hoffman Feb 4 '16 at 15:33
  • Darrel, agreed. But I'm struggling to find a context in which go off would be used with respect to an alarm clock and mean deactivate or stop functioning. – GoDucks Feb 4 '16 at 16:01
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    @GoDucks: With an alarm clock, probably none. But you could use go off with respect to something else, e.g. "The lights go off when I flip this switch". In that case, you'd expect the lights to be off, not on. It is very context-sensitive that way. – Darrel Hoffman Feb 4 '16 at 16:15
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    I wouldn't say a switch makes lights "go off" unless they're strobe lights, and the switch is making them strobe (i.e. the visual equivalent of an alarm ringing). I would say the switch makes the lights turn off. (Actually, I wouldn't say that either, I'd say the switch "turns the lights off", but at least the former would be grammatical, just awkward.) – neminem Feb 4 '16 at 19:32

It is potentially ambiguous; but because of the familiarity of the collocation "the alarm went off", (meaning triggered), anybody who said that meaning that it had turned itself off would be very likely to be misunderstood, so it is unlikely anybody would say it in that sense.

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