Nauseous vs. Nauseated: If you're feeling nauseous, don't come near me!

posted 2000-May-1

Another pedantic rant (brought to my attention by my erudite sister Chandra). So often people see something gross, start feeling sick, and say, "Oh my, I feel nauseous!"

When one feels like vomiting, one feels NAUSEATED. When something causes nausea, that thing is said to be NAUSEOUS. The American Heritage English Dictionary sez:

Causing nausea; sickening
To be feeling, or having been caused to feel nausea.

So, next time you are tempted to say "I feel nauseous", understand that you are saying "I feel that I make other people sick", or basically "I feel nauseating".

Not that it's never correct to say "I feel nauseous". For example, if you fell in a pile of human entrails and got up with various bits of human anatomy draped around your body, you would probably be correct in calling yourself nauseous. (But you'd probably also be nauseated, and I suspect your pending loss of lunch would still be the emotion you'd want to describe instead of caring how you made other people feel.)

In writing this rant, I looked up the actual definitions above, and in doing so found this Usage Note:

Traditional critics have insisted that nauseous is appropriately used only to mean "causing nausea" and that it is incorrect to use it to mean "affected with nausea," as in Roller coasters make me nauseous. In this example, nauseated is preferred by 72 percent of the Usage Panel. What is curious, however, is that 88 percent of the Panelists indicated that they would prefer nauseating in the sentence The children looked a little green from too many candy apples and nauseous rides. Thus it appears that like a handful of other words such as transpire, nauseous is actively used mainly in the sense in which it is considered incorrect.

While the use of nauseous to mean "affected with nausea" may incur critical displeasure, it should be pointed out in its defense not only that it is quite common among educated speakers but that it is subtly distinct from nauseated in this sense. Nauseated is a passive participle, and hence suggests a condition induced by a specific external cause. By contrast, nauseous is an adjective that refers to an occurrent state whose cause may be nonspecific or unknown. The person who reports that I woke up this morning feeling nauseous might not be willing to accept that he or she had been nauseated by any external agent.

To that, I say phah! Rest assured that I'll still look cross-eyed at you if you use nauseous in this sense, and further I will, with a concerned demeanor, press quite fully to discover the cause of your nausea. So don't think you can hide your wicked ways from me with semantics! :P

Footnote: in leafing through the dictionary, I discovered a word with fascinating spelling--phthisic. Look it up yourself (and all its phth brethren, like phthiriasis).

Dain Kistner
10:20AM ET
Go get em, Gav!
Let's stomp bad grammar once and for all! :P
Gavin Kistner
09:14PM ET
Just thought I'd link to another site discussing this issue, generally saying "technically's been around long enough it's acceptable.
Kevin Baird
03:59PM ET
I suggest looing at for the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Most linguists think prescriptive grammar is at best misguided.

There is little conceptual difference between objecting to the use of nauseous to mean 'filled with a feeling of nausea' and thinking that French is 'incorrect' Latin. To be consistent, you should stop using Norman-derived vocabulary when speaking English. You should also add real cases back in (like our other Germanic language siblings). All of these changes were probably objected to by prescriptivists of those times. Languages change just as species do. When is a perfectly natural language change old enough to be 'acceptable'?
Josh Paul
03:46PM ET

Not a big fan of grammarians, in person, that is. Very tough people to be around, as they are usually correcting everything and can’t seem to relax. However, they are very good as online resources, helping me, greatly, with my writing endeavors. Thank you for clearly defining nauseous and nauseated. I have been struggling with that one for a while now.

04:34PM ET

Only Americans use the English language so badly, let’s be honest here. I have American friends and believe me people, it’s a lost cause. You just have to relax and open your mind a bit and maybe, just maybe, concern yourself with more important things.

12:51AM ET

I agree that ‘nauseated’ and ‘nauseating’ mean what you say they mean. But if soooo many people use nauseous as if to mean nauseated, don’t you think ‘nauseous’ also means nauseated? In fact, a number of dictionaries, including this one ( nauseous.adjective 1.affected with nausea; nauseated: to feel nauseous. 2.causing nausea; sickening; nauseating. 3.disgusting; loathsome: a nauseous display of greed.

use it to mean both things. Context makes it clear which meaning is implied in most cases, and the double meaning is always helpful in making a witty pun.

03:35PM ET

Well I suggest you look at the following as it appears that it is possible to use the word nauseous to mean that you feel sick as well as causing nausea.

nauseous [ˈnɔːzɪəs -sɪəs] adj 1. feeling sick 2. (Medicine) causing nausea 3. distasteful to the mind or senses; repulsive nauseously  adv nauseousness  n

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

Adj. 1. nauseous - causing or able to cause nausea; “a nauseating smell”; “nauseous offal”; “a sickening stench” loathsome, nauseating, noisome, queasy, sickening, vile, offensive unwholesome - detrimental to physical or moral well-being; “unwholesome food”; “unwholesome habits like smoking”

  1. nauseous - feeling nausea; feeling about to vomit nauseated, sickish, queasy, sick ill, sick - affected by an impairment of normal physical or mental function; “ill from the monotony of his suffering”

Based on WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. © 2003-2011 Princeton University, Farlex Inc.

Adj. 1. nauseous - causing or able to cause nausea; “a nauseating smell”; “nauseous offal”; “a sickening stench” loathsome, nauseating, noisome, qIueasy, sickening, vile, offensive unwholesome - detrimental to physical or moral well-being; “unwholesome food”; “unwholesome habits like smoking”

  1. nauseous - feeling nausea; feeling about to vomit nauseated, sickish, queasy, sick ill, sick - affected by an impairment of normal physical or mental function; “ill from the monotony of his suffering”

Based on WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. © 2003-2011 Princeton University, Farlex Inc.



adjective 1. sick, green, ill, unwell, nauseated, queasy, bilious, crook (Austral. & N.Z. informal) The drugs make me feel nauseous.

  1. sickening, offensive, disgusting, revolting, distasteful, repulsive, nauseating, repugnant, loathsome, abhorrent, detestable, yucky or yukky (slang) The floor was deep with bat dung giving off a nauseous smell. Collins Thesaurus of the English Language – Complete and Unabridged 2nd Edition. 2002 © HarperCollins Publishers 1995, 2002

So I would suggest you all get your facts right before jumping on your high horse.

04:07AM ET

I agree with Phil and having studied linguistics in multiple languages, I would disagree with your definition of the difference (you aren’t right, but you are only half wrong). Nausea comes from the Latin word nausea and Greek word nausia meaning, seasickness. It can mean both, I feel nauseous means I feel sick or I feel nauseating (as in what you described), that’s the wonderful thing about English adjectives- they are ridiculously ambiguous. Sometimes the world isn’t so black and white.

11:34AM ET

Thanks for clarifying this. I am editing a book and it needs to be grammatically accurate, so I appreciate your commentary on this topic! It was my first Google hit.

07:33AM ET

Does anyone know what the webster dictionary definition for nauseous is? As that is the only one that really counts (JK). But honestly, I think people tend to focus too much on the way someone says something as opposed to what they are saying. Now its one thing if they are way off base and you just cant make heads or tails of what they are saying, but if its obvious what they are saying, dont derail the conversation just so you can make yourself feel more important for 2 minutes. This of course tends to happen more often in text than in actual conversation, and when you grief someone for that, you are a common troll. When you do it it verbal conversation, you are just a jerk.

12:31PM ET

This is terrific! Thanks!

01:22PM ET

Would you also suggest then that we say “I feel sickened” instead of “I feel sick”?

11:19AM ET
2012-Jun-22 says that nauseous meaning causing nausea AND affected by nausea, and nauseated meaning affected by nausea have been around for roughly the same amount of time, from the early 17th century. The majority of online dictionaries agree with these definitions, as do both my 1989 English dictionary and my 2004 English dictionary. Using the American Heritage Dictionary might be your problem.

09:19PM ET

Last night i was busy playing and running around in my church which is air conditioned.and i got dizzy for a brief moment and when i got home i was way worse and took me forever to sleep.I am epileptic but I did not have a sezure nor did i have feelngs like i was.Could that be just nauseous?

04:58PM ET

Seems that this guy is not only wrong but based his whole rant off one source.

05:48AM ET


08:37PM ET

‘American’ Heritage - Didn’t need to expand any further really, did we?

12:09PM ET

Nauseous = Adjective, Nauseated = Adverb

12:33AM ET

From TBBT Series 1 Episode 17 – The Tangerine Factor

Leonard: Now that I’m actually about to go out with Penny, I’m not excited, I’m nauseous.

Sheldon: Ah, then your meal choice is appropriate. Starch absorbs fluid which reduces the amount of vomit available for violent expulsion.

Leonard: Right.

Sheldon: You also made a common grammatical mistake, you said nauseous when you meant nauseated. But go on.

10:13AM ET

Well, since most dictionaries define ‘naseous’ as having both meanings your entire article is wrong. Sorry

11:38AM ET

i feel sickened vs i feel sickous? ;)

02:27PM ET

From Meriam Webster:

Those who insist that nauseous can properly be used only in sense 1 and that in sense 2 it is an error for nauseated are mistaken. Current evidence shows these facts: nauseous is most frequently used to mean physically affected with nausea, usually after a linking verb such as feel or become; figurative use is quite a bit less frequent. Use of nauseous in sense 1 is much more often figurative than literal, and this use appears to be losing ground to nauseating. Nauseated is used more widely than nauseous in sense 2. Examples of NAUSEOUS The smell of gasoline makes me nauseous. I began to feel nauseous. Instead what they do is all sit together and feel really bad, and pray. Nobody does anything as nauseous as try to make everybody all pray together or pray aloud or anything, but you can tell what they’re doing. —David Foster Wallace, Rolling Stone, 25 Oct. 2001

09:46PM ET

Don’t u just love first world problems.

09:18PM ET

This article says nothing about correcting other people, so there’s little reason for so many comments to take off in that direction. I say that the best thing to do is to internalize a standard and go with it. Here’s my point: forget the word “nauseous”; it sounds stilted, and I think people use it to sound sophisticated, just like they default to “myself” when the pronoun “me” is the best choice. Instead, use “nauseated” when you feel nauseated, and identify the source of your nausea as something that is “nauseating.” Simple, right? And by the way, I let standard prescriptive grammar and diction slide into oblivion when people talk me. I’m a very forgiving listener. Many people say important things using incredibly weak grammar, and they use diction that is little better than word soup. Correcting those guys is madness, not to mention rude as hell.

05:59AM ET

I’m with the author on this . . . Am I nauseated or am I nauseous? Hopefully the first. Am I poisoned or am I poisonous? Hopefully neither!

Just the facts, ma'am
11:06PM ET

Usage note The two literal senses of nauseous, “causing nausea” ( a nauseous smell ) and “affected with nausea” ( to feel nauseous ), appear in English at almost the same time in the early 17th century, and both senses are in standard use at the present time. Nauseous is more common than nauseated in the sense “affected with nausea,” despite recent objections by those who imagine the sense to be new. In the sense “causing nausea,” either literally or figuratively, nauseating has become more common than nauseous : a nauseating smell.

11:08PM ET

Are you envied or envious? I fail to see how referencing poison helps. Nauseous is accepted to mean “feeling sick” by most folks, including Merriam Webster… and she’s a real smart lady. Deal with it and worry about something else!

08:57PM ET

Thanks to Big Bang Theory for bringing this to my attention, but even bigger thanks to the humorous explanation here. I wonder where this big confusion started as to the right/wrong sense of the word.

Now I am not an English professor but is it just me or is there something wrong with “English Dictionary sez” ??

09:30PM ET

I agree with the original poster on this one. I hate how people keep saying, well most people use it this way so it’s okay, about many different words. Well no one asked if it’s okay, of course it’s okay to say it that way. However that doesn’t change the fact that it’s technically wrong.

I mean hey if you want you can say irregardless in place of regardless, that’s okay. Your just gonna sound dumb.

I’ve always thought it was funny when some one said, I feel nauseous, cause it sounds like they are saying I feel stinky and or gross.

01:53PM ET

Hey so correct me if I’m wrong but with you being so anal on grammar matters, you may have noticed that you spelled “sez” wrong in the sentence “The American Heritage English Dictionary sez:”. Like I said correct me if I’m wrong. I’m just an average human that almost sent a text to his wife stating that he was nauseous (making others feel sick). Haha anyways please reply to the board and educate me further.


01:55PM ET

Ha I just read Daniel post! He agrees!!…

04:38PM ET

Obsessive-compulsive much?

11:12AM ET

Grammar lessons from a person with a B.S. in Computer & Electrical Engineering and a B.A. in Computer Science. Not exactly a peer-reviewed article.

11:54AM ET

Has anyone noticed the double negative that he used, I’m thinking, that if one wants to go on a diatribe about nauseous, and nauseated, they should be able to put together a few sentences.

Ruth Lym
03:25AM ET

I learned this difference from the TV show The Big Bang Theory. I see that others here have also.

01:04PM ET

How strange the original post was written in 2000. With barely a comment until it was resurrected in 2012. The references to websites/ dictionaries to disprove the opening post are in the main dated later than the 2000 post date.

09:55AM ET

I think the various dictionaries seem to define noxious as you are describing nauseous. I was always corrected when I used the work noxious to describe the feeling of sickness, and was actually surprised when I found that you could use the word nauseous instead of noxious, and be correct according to many dictionaries.

10:48AM ET

Good read for a 14 year old blog…made my night at 11.47pm

07:43PM ET

The thing with language is that “correctness” does not always dictate current usage. If you say something and people understand you, that is the most important thing. language is for communicating and BOTH words communicate to me that you wanna barf!!

i speak 3 languages fluently thus i’ve had to learn this lesson thrice :p #former grammar nazi

01:59PM ET

So you rant over the incorrect usage of nauseous, but feel it appropriate to use “sez” instead of says… Interesting.

11:04PM ET

When one is putting oneself forth as a grammarian, it might be useful to review what is written before putting it out into the world: “The person to reports that I woke up this morning feeling nauseous might not be willing to accept that he or she had been nauseated by any external agent.”

02:50AM ET

nausea = noun; (to) nauseate = verb; (this soup is) nauseating (me) = present participle as adjective; (I am) nauseated (by this soup) = past participle with verb ‘be’ in passive as adjective; nauseous = adjective describing something which nauseates only and not something which is nauseated? What about ‘bilious’ - same suffix ‘-ous’.

Ron Depper
03:29AM ET

I used to say ‘I am nauseaus’, and was corrected, same thing for nauseated. Now I just say I’m sick to my stomach’ and let officious grammerians and let them all rot in Hell

The CORRECT answer!
01:32AM ET

Although not exactly well-written, the poster’s analysis is CORRECT. More disturbing to me are the critics using “your” when the contraction “you’re” is applicable. Please people…. we know there are more pressing problems in the world, but allowing our language to disentigrate on top of them will not fix any of them. Those who are pointing out the larger problems of the world, please ask yourself how much time you spent attempting to correct one of those larger problems today!

10:18AM ET

I am sorry sir, but you are wrong. You see English is a colloquial language, meaning that when a word, term, or phrase is use commonly enough we change the language to match the definition of the word as used or add the word or phrase to the language. Nauseous has been used to mean nauseated for so long that Merriam-Webster and Oxford have both acquiesced to the change.

06:45AM ET

Has anyone thought to actually check his source?

From The American Heritage English Dictionary Online:

nau·seous (nôshəs, -zē-əs) Share:
adj. 1. Causing nausea; sickening: “the most nauseous offal fit for the gods” (John Fowles). 2. Affected with nausea.

His own source disagrees with him.

bigger Don
06:28PM ET

Oh, so you looked hp the “actual” definitions. Bad writing…then topped it off with a “sez”. Next!

06:56PM ET

“we know there are more pressing problems in the world, but allowing our language to disentigrate on top of them will not fix any of them.”

You meant “disintegrate”.</b></b>

12:43AM ET

If I am nauseated by something that is nauseating–or by something that causes nausea–then I feel that I am filled with nausea or I am feeling nauseous. These usages, to me, define their usage.

Noxious is basically the same word as what nauseous used to be, but it used much more frequently and often in place of nauseous. Saying a smell or substance is nauseous is much more confusing sounding than saying it is nauseating or noxious, in that it causes nausea. Also, nauseated is the only “technically correct” form and it is past participle verb as opposed to simply descriptive of a feeling: nauseous.

06:37PM ET

The Oxford dictionary which is the one that counts, disagrees with the premise of this blog. Using nauseous to indicate one feels sick is a perfectly acceptable use of the word. Even if that was not the original meaning of the word it has become the common usage. English is far more fluid than most people. Many of the the mistakes that the grammar police try to eliminate are perfectly acceptable usage of the language.

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