Which is grammatically correct?

Sophia woke up by the rattling sound of her washing machine.


Sophia woke up to the rattling sound of her washing machine.

  • 3
    I edited this question because "which" is correct when asking for a choice between two options, and because if both are grammatically correct, then neither is more correct than the other: they may be in different registers, however. – user21497 Jan 28 '13 at 5:11

The first sentence is not what I would consider normal, idiomatic, native-speaker English and should be this:

Sophia was awakened by the rattling sound of her washing machine.

The second sentence is grammatically correct and standard English.

  • 1
    How about Patrick's suggestion: "she woke up from..."? – janoChen Jan 28 '13 at 4:49
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    @Jano: I guess you can tell from my answer that I disagree with Patrick's, Mohit's, and Jim's claim that "She woke up by.." is grammatical. I didn't downvote those answers or argue with them because that may be acceptable English in their dialects, but it's not acceptable in the kind of standard English used for the TOEFL or TOEIC tests, the GREs, the SATs, the LSATs, the IELTS test, etc. It's not formal, written English. Native speakers will say anything and we assume it's correct because we say it, but we know better: even native speakers make mistakes in their own language. – user21497 Jan 28 '13 at 5:06
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    As a non-native English speaker (German) I'd back Bill on this. The first sentence is awkwardly mixing active and passive ("Sophia woke up" is active, but "by the rattling sound" is passive). Bill transformed the first sentence completely into passive in his answer, which makes it sound much better (at least to me). – S22h Jan 28 '13 at 9:37
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    @Khaur: I respectfully disagree that it's grammatical, except, as Fumble Fingers says, "in an extremely contrived context". I may be okay in your dialect, but it's not standard English and wouldn't pass muster on an SAT test or an IELTS test. – user21497 Jan 28 '13 at 10:21
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    I added the comment so nobody would get the idea that there's some obscure grammatical rule that you have to switch the verb from wake up to awaken when you put it into the passive. English grammar is complicated enough already. – Peter Shor Jan 28 '13 at 13:50

Except in an extremely contrived context, I don't think OP's first example is valid. Google Books returns just 205 instances of woke by the sound, and it seems to me almost all of those have the verb form wrong. They should be woken by the sound, which itself returns 15,300 hits.

You're woken by something if that thing is what causes you to wake.

You wake to something if that's what you first perceive (usually, hear) when you wake up.

Note that although the by form is normally used in the context of unplanned awakenings, it can be used of a deliberate method - I made sure I woke [up in time] by using a loud alarm clock.

  • She'd only just started her new job, and didn't yet have enough money to buy an alarm clock. But she knew if she was late, she'd be sacked, so she used a mains timer socket creatively. For a whole month until the first payday, Sophia woke up by the rattling sound of her washing machine. A bit iffy, but at least a vaguely credible utterance. – FumbleFingers Jan 28 '13 at 17:24

Actually they both seem grammatically correct. 1st one seems to say that she actually woke up "due to the" rattling sound and the 2nd one seems to suggest that she woke up by herself but heard the rattling sound going on.

  • While I agree with your comment regarding the second one, I think the first one doesn't work because it really needs to be "was woken" – Relaxing In Cyprus Jan 28 '13 at 8:20

Yes, both are grammatically correct; it really depends on what you want to express. If you want to say that she woke up because of the rattling, then use the first one. If you want to say that she woke up on her own accord, then use the second one. However, having said that, the first one would be better stated if you said, she woke up "from" the rattling sound.

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    Thanks for the suggestion. How about "she was woken up by...?" – janoChen Jan 28 '13 at 4:46
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    Whatever else it may be, Sophia woke up by the rattling sound of her washing machine isn't grammatical in British Standard English. – Barrie England Jan 28 '13 at 13:03

Sophia woke up by the rattling sound of her washing machine.

I don't know what this means. It does not sound right to me. And it certainly isn't idiomatic. I would guess it means one of the following two statements, but I wouldn't know which.

Sophia woke up to the rattling sound of her washing machine.

The sound of her washing machine was the first thing Sophia was aware of when she woke up. (I, myself, would be inclined to omit the up in this example sentence, but perhaps that's just me.)

Sophia was awakened by the rattling sound of her washing machine.

(Bill Franke's suggestion.)
The sound of her washing machine woke Sophia up.


Sophia woke up by her washing machine.

When Sophia woke up, she was beside her washing machine.


The first one ("by") suggests the cause of her awakening.

The second ("to") suggests that there was an incidental sound at the time she awoke.

They are both correct in common use but have different meanings.

  • by: preposition meaning "through the agency or instrumentality of" - he was killed by his attacker
  • to: preposition meaning "accompanied by" - they danced to the music
  • 1
    The first form is not in common use, which would be "was woken". – Relaxing In Cyprus Jan 28 '13 at 8:22

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