Imagine eating your way through half of your leftover holiday treats only to feel sick 20 minutes later. (Your body doesn’t like what you just did to it, and you better bet that it’s going to tell you). You might say that you feel nauseous, which would make grammar sticklers turn in their graves. Nauseated, they say, is the word you need to use. But are they right? In this post, we’ll settle the battle by breaking down what nauseous means.
What grammar sticklers think nauseous means
Grammar sticklers are pretty attached to traditional definitions of words. And what’s the traditional definition of nauseous? To cause nausea or feelings of illness. So instead of feeling sick, something that’s nauseous causes someone to feel sick. Here’s how grammar sticklers would use nauseous in a sentence based on what they believe nauseous means:
- “The nauseous contents of the garbage bag had been sitting there for days.”
- “I hate Brussels sprouts. They’re nauseous.”
- “Most patients find chemotherapy to be nauseous.”
- “Holiday treats are nauseous if you eat too many at once.”
This isn’t how you usually use nauseous, is it? Well, we can tell you that you’re not the only one. That’s why grammar sticklers think most people use nauseous incorrectly (and may not be afraid to tell them so).
What grammar sticklers say you should use instead
Grammar sticklers would tell you that if you feel like you’re about to throw up, you feel nauseated not nauseous. (Although we really hope this isn’t something they would say while you’re feeling sick.).
According to the grammar sticklers, whereas nauseous means to cause nausea, nauseated means to feel sick. You would use nauseated in sentences like these:
- “The contents of the garbage bag are starting to make him feel nauseated.”
- “Calvin feels nauseated every time he eats Brussels sprouts.”
- “Chemotherapy makes most patients feel nauseated.”
- “Eating all of those leftover holiday treats made her feel nauseated.”
Keep in mind that by grammar sticklers, we’re not talking about the people who constantly write letters to the editor about negligible typos in the local paper. (At least those aren’t the only people we’re talking about). Many authorities in the grammar world, such as Grammar Girl and Grammarly, also endorse the traditional distinction between nauseous and nauseated to some degree. Heck, even a clinical pharmacologist and the British Medical Journal, a highly respected academic journal, side with the grammar sticklers about what nauseous means.
But is this perspective right?
Why you don’t need to listen to grammar sticklers (in this case)
Although grammar sticklers believe you shouldn’t use nauseous when you really mean nauseated, major dictionaries disagree with them. For example, the Oxford Dictionaries says that nauseous means (1) feeling sick and (2) causing feelings of sickness. And the Merriam-Webster dictionary not only agrees that nauseous means feeling sick but also says there’s no basis for the argument that nauseous can’t be used this way.
These reputable dictionaries recognize that people use nauseous to mean “feeling sick” all the time (and much more than they use nauseated to say the same thing). That’s why they’ll tell you that there’s nothing wrong with saying that you feel nauseous.
Nauseous is a contentious word. It’s not hard to find a grammar stickler who will tell you that “I’m nauseous” really means “I’m someone who makes people feel sick.” But just like you shouldn’t believe everything you read online, you shouldn’t believe everything a grammar stickler says without looking into whether it’s actually true.
Nauseous means to cause someone to feel sick. But it can also mean to feel sick, so go ahead and use it this way. After all, J.K. Rowling did in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:
“She looked slightly nauseous, as though she had just watched someone being sick. However, when she drew out her wand and pointed it at Barty Crouch, her hand was quite steady.”
And if writing queen J.K. Rowling used it like this, it must be okay.