English is quite a strange language. It’s a language where feet smell, fridges run, and people fall asleep. Often, people get confused between two expressions: “fall asleep” and “fell asleep.”
“Fall asleep” should be used when referring to an event that is happening now, as it is in the present tense. For example, one could say “I feel like I am going to fall asleep.” “Fell asleep” is past tense and should be used when referring to an event that happened in the past, as in “I fell asleep unexpectedly last night.”
So if you’re an English speaker, chances are you’ll find room to use both. This article will be a handy guide on what these expressions mean, how to differentiate between them, how to use them, and (if necessary) when to avoid using them.
What Does “Fell Asleep” Mean?
“Fall asleep” is an expression you can use to describe someone when they are slumbering or what you’d use to say a person’s body part feels numb from lack of movement (also known as pins and needles). The past tense version of this is “fell asleep.”
Let’s look at “fall” and “asleep.” We don’t have to look at “fell” specifically because there is no change in meaning when it is in the past tense.
Typically, “fall” is an irregular verb that describes the motion where someone or something hits the ground. Other forms of “fall” include “falls,” “falling,” “fell,” and “falling.” The form you use changes depending on the tense, singularity, or plurality (source).
- I began to fall when I stumbled over the pointy rock.
- The ball fell to the ground.
However, in this scenario, “fall” is slightly different. To “fall” is to transition from one state or situation to another. This use isn’t uncommon. Chances are, the expressions in the sentences below are probably familiar to most of us:
- The two of them fell in love.
- Anastasia fell pregnant two years into their marriage.
- James would often fall asleep while reading a book.
If you can’t tell, there’s a change in state for the subjects in each sentence:
- In the first sentence, two people are the subject. They both went from a state of not being in love to being in love.
- Anastasia went from not being pregnant to being pregnant.
- James went from a state of wakefulness (and reading) to being asleep.
What Is “Being Asleep”?
The word “sleep” is a noun we define as “the natural state of rest in which your eyes are closed, your body is inactive, and your mind does not think” (source). So when you “fall asleep,” you have entered this relaxed state.
While a somnologist may be able to explain what sleep is and all the various stages, it’s easier to rely on this dictionary definition.
Another common saying which uses this word is, “Did you sleep well last night?” If you’d like to know more about this question and why it’s not as literal as it seems, make sure to read the article Is It Correct to Say “Did You Sleep Well Last Night?
How Do You Use “Fell Asleep?”
“Fell asleep” always appears within a sentence and never at the start. In English, sentences typically are in the form of subject + verb + object. Because “fell” or “fall” is a verb, it’s not something you would find at the start of a sentence.
So, one thing to keep in mind is we need a subject to “fell” or “fall asleep.” As long as you’re speaking in the active voice, the subject (purple) will always come before either of these expressions:
- Jamie fell asleep.
- He fell asleep on the couch.
- The baby woke up and then fell asleep again.
As you can see, the subject is typically a word or two and takes the form of a name or a pronoun. And while a full sentence can consist of subject + fell asleep, more complicated sentences do exist.
- She was so tired that she fell asleep in her work clothes.
- Jack and Rose fell asleep, and their mother could go to take a shower.
- A doctor walked in with a needle, and then she fell asleep again.
“Fell asleep” can also be part of an independent or dependent clause, depending on its usage, but the main point is that it has to show that someone had slept in the past.
When Can You Use “Fell Asleep?”
As mentioned before, “fell” is just another form of the verb “fall.” “Fall” is the basic infinitive form, while “fell” is in the past tense. So if someone went to sleep before now, you would say they “fell asleep.”
So let’s do a recap of what we know about tense. Typically, tenses take the forms that are in this table (source):
|Past Tense||Present Tense||Future Tense|
|Simple Form||Subject + Verb 2 + Object||Subject + Verb 1 + Object||Subject + Will + Verb 1 + Object|
|Progressive Form||Subject + Was/Were + Verb 1+ing + Object||Subject + Am/Is/Are + Verb 1 + ing +Object||Subject + Will Be+ Verb 1 + ing +Object|
|Perfect Form||Subject + Had + Verb 3 + Object||Subject + Have/Has + Verb 3 + Object||Subject + Will Have + Verb 3 + Object|
|Perfect Progressive||Subject + Had Been + Verb 1+ Ing + Object||Subject + Have/Has +Verb 1+ing +Object||Subject + Will Have Been + Verb 1+ ing + Object|
All these numbers may look confusing, but it’s actually quite simple. Verb 1 is the base verb/infinitive, verb 2 is the past simple form, and verb 3 is the past participle. We know that “fall” is verb 1, while “fell” is verb 2. Verb 3 would be “fallen asleep.”
So with this in mind, we can see that you use “fall” (not falling) in the simple present and the simple future tenses.
On the other hand, we only use “fell” in the simple past tense. As soon as you switch to another tense, the form of “fall” will change.
In What Context Can You Use “Fell Asleep?”
You can use “fell asleep” to show that someone has slept in the past. You can use it in many contexts to show the sleeping behavior of the subject, but you should always precede it with the noun or pronoun.
Since “fell asleep” is simple past tense, it cannot give us any more information on the subject, like whether they are still asleep or have now woken up. So the past perfect or past perfect progressive form would be more appropriate when providing that type of information.
|Simple Past||He fell asleep as soon as he got home.|
|Past Perfect||He had fallen asleep as soon as he got home.|
|Past Perfect Progressive||He had been falling asleep all the way home.|
We use “fell asleep” to provide information, and this can relate to the causes of sleepiness. By using “fell asleep,” you can imply that the subject is tired, overworked, or unable to fall asleep in different contexts.
- It had been a long day, and she fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.
- The baby fell asleep at the back of the car and didn’t wake up until we got home.
- She fell asleep in his arms, feeling safer than ever.
We understand when to use “fell asleep,” but are there scenarios where it is incorrect? Let’s explore those.
Using “Fell Asleep” In a Full Sentence
“Fell asleep” should appear in a sentence preceded by a subject and should always be in the past tense. It should also refer to the act of sleeping.
The only difference in the usage of “fell asleep” and “fall asleep” is tense, but they are completely synonymous.
However, due to the tense difference, it will show when the action takes place, and that is contrasting. “Fell asleep” shows when something has happened already in one instance, but “fall asleep” sometimes has to change to “falls asleep” to make sense in habitual descriptions.
- Paul fell asleep while watching TV.
- Paul falls asleep while watching TV.
- Paul can fall asleep at any time, even while watching TV.
“Fell asleep” should not appear at the start of the sentence, but there is a way to use it in dialogue:
John walks in and looks around, “Where’s Sandra?” he asks Andrew.
“Fell asleep as soon as she got in,” Andrew replies with a gesture toward her bedroom.
The above dialogue makes sense. However, its usage is still colloquial and would not be grammatically accurate, although it is still easy to understand because it is a minor sentence answer.
When Not To Use “Fell Asleep”
You cannot use “fell asleep” when someone is not sleeping or when you are not referring to the past tense. You also cannot use “fell asleep” at the start of a sentence unless you are using it as a response to a question.
Therefore, using the phrase incorrectly is difficult when you know the context and tense.
Incorrect Example Sentences:
- I fell asleep as soon as I walk into the room.
- Fell asleep is always nice at the end of the day.
- I woke up and fell asleep into his eyes.
As you can see above, there are issues with tense in the first sentence, as “fell” is in the past tense while the rest of the sentence is written in the present tense. In the second example, the sentence starts with “fell asleep,” which does not make sense in context.
Finally, while the tense and syntax are correct in the third sentence, you cannot fall asleep in someone’s eyes. Therefore, even in a figurative sense, the sentence is inaccurate.
What Can You Use Instead Of “Fell Asleep?”
There are several synonyms for “fell asleep,” but due to the two ideas of “falling” and “sleep,” it is more difficult to find a completely synonymous phrase. Phrases like “doze off” and “nod off” suggest a similar idea.
It is easy to find synonyms for “asleep,” like “nap,” “slumber,” “doze,” and “snooze.” The synonyms for “fell” or “fall” would be “drop,” “plummet,” “descend,” and “dive.” However, you cannot combine these for a similar effect.
It is incorrect to say that you “plummet into a nap” or you “dive into a doze.” These phrases are humorous and could be effective within a funny text, but they are not grammatically accurate or synonymous with falling asleep.
Therefore, synonyms that make more sense are phrases such as “doze off,” “nod off,” or “drift off.” The word “off” suggests movement, and the idea is that you are moving from a state of wakefulness to the metaphorical sleep world or sleeping state.
To bring these phrases closer to “fell asleep,” you must change them to the past tense.
- He dozed off as soon as he got into bed.
- Paton nodded off in the backseat of the Uber.
- She drifted off with a smile on her face.
All of these examples have a similar meaning to “fell asleep,” but they are more indicative of a slower process of falling asleep. They also do not provide a sense of deeper sleep, so you get the idea that the subjects could be woken up easily.
Irregular verbs are verbs that do not follow the classic form of verb tenses that change from past, present, and future. For example, “fall” is an irregular verb as the past tense is “fell,” the present tense is “fall,” but the past participle is “fallen.”
In contrast, regular verbs follow the rule of the past tense, including “-ed,” the present tense remains in the root form or includes “-s,” and the future tense generally remains in the root form but requires the inclusion of “will” (source).
- He walked home every day after school.
- He walks home every day after school.
- He will walk home every day after school.
Irregular verbs have significantly different forms when it comes to their past tense. The past tense does not follow the “-ed” rule and often changes to something completely different. For example, the past tense of “eat” is “ate,” and the past participle is “eaten.”
Irregular verbs require more understanding when using them, so you know you are using the correct form. This is because the purpose of a past participle is to express the perfect tense and to show when an event was completed.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Irregular verbs are not the only verbs that appear in the past perfect tense, but they are the only verbs that require a different form in the past perfect tense.
“Fall asleep” and “fell asleep” are both correct forms of the phrase. The only change between them is the tense and what they express therein. The main thing is to remember that it should start with a subject before using “fell asleep.”
There are several synonyms you can use to express similar ideas, but nothing quite expresses the same idea as the act of “falling asleep.”