WordBird Tips: Nauseous vs. Nauseate
I’ll be upfront and honest: I’m not a grammar traditionalist in the slightest. I believe you should use commas and colons correctly, sure, but I’m not the kind of editor or writer who believes in artificial constructions like ensuring you never break an infinitive or rearranging a sentence so it doesn’t end with a preposition.
I definitely do not abide by the divide between “nauseate” and “nauseous.” The people who do are the people who read Strunk & White and take it as gospel, including all that nonsense about passive voice.
Most people these days use “nauseous” to describe a feeling. You might go to your doctor if you’ve been experiencing nausea and tell the good doctor you’re “nauseous.”
If your GP is a grammar purist, they will laugh. And laugh. And laugh.
It’s the same issue as with poisonous and venomous. If something bites you and you die, it’s venomous. If you bite something and you die, it’s poisonous. Essentially, one indicates the subjective (the active agent) and the other indicates the objective (the thing having the action done to it).
The venomous snake bit me.
I ate the poisonous mushroom.
You wouldn’t say you ate the “venomous” mushroom—unless this is a weird, flesh-eating mushroom that is also sentient.
All right, nauseous/nauseate works in a similar way. If something is disgusting, it’s nauseous—such as a nauseous smell. By contrast, if the thing acts on you, it’s nauseating—it induces nausea. As a result, you can be nauseated, but if you’re nauseous, you probably smell pretty bad.
So why the confusion? Basically, one’s a verb and one’s an adjective, but people have adopted the adjective form (nauseous) to describe feeling, when it’s actually more proper to use the verb form.
All in the Form
The logic … kind of makes sense. Adjectives describe things, so using the “description word” to describe your feeling might make sense. But you’d actually need an adverb to properly describe “feeling” or “being,” since these are verbs.
For example, we don’t say:
I feel nauseously.
We also don’t say:
The feeling was nauseous. (Although you could say that, if it meant it induced nausea.)
Instead, we say:
I feel nauseous – the same way we say I feel sick or I feel ill. (“I felt sickly” would actually be more correct here anyway, since it’s the adverb formation.)
The difference? Sick and ill are adjectives, not verbs. So why the heck would we use a verb with this construction? I feel sick, I feel ill, but I feel nauseated?
Using nauseous is essentially a back-formation, wherein we apply the rules from other constructions to a similar construction—although it’s erroneous to do so. It makes sense, though, so we continue to use it, until it becomes acceptable.
At this stage, however, nauseate versus nauseous is one of those sticking points that seems a bit moot. People use “nauseous” all the time, even when they mean “nauseated.” Merriam-Webster’s has actually updated their definition of nauseous to include this meaning, and even prestigious outlets like The New Yorker use it.
When The New Yorker accepts an error, it’s probably time to stop arguing about it.