I saw this saying in a conversation book:

I didn’t get to sleep for two or three hours. Then after that I tossed and turned all night.

And I’ve consulted Merriam Webster dictionary.

Doesn’t “toss and turn” mean not able to sleep?

  • 2
    The two are related but by no means synonymous. "Toss and turn" is a fairly literal description of the activity -- moving about restlessly. You may "toss and turn" during your sleep, or the activity may prevent you from sleeping (though the latter is the more common use).
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 9, 2018 at 13:27

3 Answers 3


"Toss and turn" is most often used to indicate a restless sleep. The idea is that while you may fall asleep, you also move around frequently and don't sleep very soundly.

Cambridge Dictionary:

to move around restlessly while sleeping or trying to sleep

  • Do you have a reference for the "restless sleep" usage being "most often"? I would have thought the insomnia meaning was more common, as in the Bobby Lewis song Tossin' and Turnin' ("I couldn't sleep at all last night/.../Well I was tossin' and turnin'/turnin' and tossin'/tossin' and turnin' all night" etc.)
    – 1006a
    Feb 9, 2018 at 14:57
  • @1006a I'd say the quote from the original post is at least an example of the "restless sleep" meaning. It's certainly how I use the phrase (native AmE) Feb 9, 2018 at 15:51
  • I didn't say the restless sleep meaning was unheard-of, just that you should have a reference if you're going to state definitively that it is the primary usage. I'm also a native AmE speaker, and use it primarily the other way; we also have one example of each usage; so now we have an N of 4 with 50/50 results. In general, answers are better if they are referenced—a dictionary entry, a corpus search, reference to a linguistic study, etc.—rather than purely opinion-based.
    – 1006a
    Feb 9, 2018 at 15:57
  • @1006a fair enough. Feb 9, 2018 at 18:09

To get to sleep means to manage to fall asleep. To toss and turn means to move around restlessly while sleeping or trying to fall asleep. Therefore, these two expressions are not synonymous. You toss and turn when you can't get to sleep.


"I didn't get to sleep for two or three hours" could mean that the person wasn't trying to fall asleep -- maybe they were listening to music or reading a book.

"Toss and turn" means they were trying -- and failing -- to fall asleep.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.