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In the phrase go to sleep, I've always thought of sleep as a noun by analysis with go to school, which would make to a preposition. However, sleep could possibly be interpreted as a verb, which would make to a particle.

Are both interpretations correct, or just one?

  • When Shakespeare wrote 'to sleep, perchance to dream' it seems to me that 'sleep' is definitely verbal and therefore 'to' is a particle. 'Go to sleep' can be more simply expressed, imperatively, as just 'Sleep !' which, again, is verbal. But 'go' is metaphorical, for one is not 'going' anywhere. So no preposition required. One is entering a state. I vote for particle, myself. – Nigel J May 13 '18 at 0:10
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    Why does it matter?? – Hot Licks May 13 '18 at 2:33
  • You're right: "sleep" is a noun here. Semantically, in the idiom "Go to sleep", "to sleep" is a 'state goal', but syntactically it is a locative complement, with "to" a preposition, and "sleep" an abstract noun as its complement (i.e. "to sleep" is a preposition phrase). Incidentally, 'particle' is not a word category (part of speech). Most so-called particles are prepositions occurring between verb and object as in "Kim took the suitcase down" ~ "Kim took down the suitcase". – BillJ May 13 '18 at 9:21
  • Of course sleep corresponds with school but so what? How does that help or change anything, please? – Robbie Goodwin May 20 '18 at 17:16
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This is a tricky question.

As strong evidence that at least some occurrences of "go to sleep" are using the preposition to and the noun sleep, I note that "went right to sleep" is well-attested, which lines up with "went right to school", "went right to the heart of the problem", and so on; whereas we don't say *"went right to talk to her", or *"went right to see what was happening", or the like.

Another piece of evidence is the related idiom "put <someone> to sleep"; put takes a prepositional phrase or the grammatical equivalent ("put <something> in the trash", "put <someone> outside", etc.), not an infinitive (*"put <someone> to be <participle>", *"put <someone> to talk to her").

Conversely, I can't find any evidence that any occurrences are using the to-infinitive to sleep; I tried a few different kinds of searches:

  • "went to <adverb> sleep" — I tried various adverbs, such as just, quickly, and merely, none of which were attested; however, corresponding searches with other verbs did not get many hits, either, so the lack of them for sleep is not a very compelling argument either way.
  • "went to sleep <adverb-that-works-with-sleep> — all I could think of were deep and deeply, neither of which is attested (whereas "to sleep deep" and "to sleep deeply", without the "went", are both very well attested). I think this is a somewhat stronger piece of evidence, but of course I don't have any other clear-cut verb like see or talk to compare it to.
  • "went to sleep <object>" — this is a very limited test, because almost the only objects that the verb sleep ever takes are noun phrases headed by the noun sleep (e.g. "to sleep the sleep of the just"); but for what it's worth, neither "went to sleep a sleep […]" nor "went to sleep the sleep […]" is attested.

So I would tentatively suggest that "go to sleep" only ever uses the preposition to and the noun sleep, even though in the vast majority of occurrences there's no way to definitively rule out the parse with the to-infinitive to sleep.

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Go to sleep (idiom) is an idiomatic expression, so to of it is not a preposition.

See the MW dictionary defines the idiom:

1: to begin sleeping

She lay down on the couch and went (right) to sleep.

Tell the kids it's time to go to sleep.

After the party, I just wanted to go to sleep.

2: of a part of the body (such as a foot or leg) : to be without feeling for a brief time usually because it has been kept in an awkward position for too long.

When I started to get up I realized my foot had gone to sleep

Note: A few similar idiomatic expressions containing particle to are:

Go to church: to attend church services

They go to church every Sunday.

Go to bed: to lie down in one's bed to sleep

She usually goes to bed around 11:00.

Go to bat: (baseball) : to be the player or team that is batting.

The visiting team goes to bat first.

Go to any length(s): to make a great or extreme effort to do something.

She'll go to any length(s) to avoid doing work.

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  • My understanding is that the particle goes with a verb, and the preposition goes with a noun. One of us has this backwards! – CJ Dennis May 13 '18 at 5:59
  • @CJDennis, Particle, in connection with grammar, means a word or a part of a word that has a grammatical purpose but often has little or no meaning. In the sentence "I tidied up the room", the adverb "up" is a particle. {dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/particle} – mahmud k pukayoor May 13 '18 at 6:26
  • Isn't it simpler all round to treat 'go to sleep' as a lexeme? Compare the verb 'awaken' (used intransitively). // 'Flatter to deceive' admittedly has me beat. – Edwin Ashworth May 13 '18 at 14:57
  • @EdwinAshworth: A lexeme can be a single word. Then, can an idiom be so? – mahmud k pukayoor May 13 '18 at 15:24
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    "Go to sleep" is not a lexeme, but an idiom. Crystal's opinion is entirely at odds with that of the widely accepted definition of lexeme, i.e. a unit corresponding to a word seen abstractly enough to include all of its inflectional forms, e.g. "take", takes, took, taken, and taken are the forms of the lexeme "take". "Go to sleep" is not a lexeme, but a clause with an idiomatic meaning, where "to sleep" is not a VP but an PP headed by the preposition "to". – BillJ May 15 '18 at 7:20
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Sleep can be both a noun and a verb. According to the OED when it is used, as it often is, in phrases with to "it is not always clear whether the noun or verb is intended".

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Go [to sleep].

You're right: it's an idiom where "sleep" is not a verb but a noun.

Semantically, the bracketed element is a state goal, but syntactically it is a locative complement, with "to" a preposition, and "sleep" an abstract noun as its complement, i.e. "to sleep" is not a verb phrase but a preposition phrase.

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  • This seems quite possible, but this answer would be much stronger if it provided some evidence for the claim. – ruakh May 16 '18 at 7:51
  • @BillJ As per your answer, the idiom go to sleep is a semantic composition having a verb go and an object (a prepositional phrase). Then, would you say that go of the idioms go to sleep, go to bed, go to church has its primary meaning move from one place to another - especially when bed and church are concrete nouns? Please comment on the semantic role of go as well. – mahmud k pukayoor May 16 '18 at 9:30
  • @mahmudkoya I think I answered that point yesterday. – BillJ May 16 '18 at 13:32

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