Why Grammar Nerds Hate it When You Say ‘I’m Nauseous’

This old English argument will make you sick to your stomach.

Paisit-Teeraphatsakool/ShutterstockMaybe you’ve used this excuse before: “Sorry, I can’t go out tonight—I’m feeling nauseous.”

And maybe your jilted friend said in response: “Um, I think you mean ‘nauseated.’”

First of all, good on you for canceling your plans with this person, because you’ve probably freed them up to spend the night pursuing their true passion of correcting grammar in pop song lyrics. Secondly, what are they even ON about?

Nauseous v. Nauseated is an English argument that’s been around for a few decades with, frustratingly, no satisfying conclusion. The English purists argue that, when “nauseous” entered the language from Latin, it meant only “causing nausea,” as the smell of an overfull vomit bag might, and that’s how we should use it today. “Nauseated,” on the other hand, means “afflicted with nausea,” like how that poor chap who filled the vomit bag feels, and should never, ever be substituted with “nauseous.” Purveyors of this argument include Strunk and White, the snootiest of English Snoots, who wrote in The Elements of Style: “[nauseous] means ‘sickening to contemplate’; [nauseated] means ‘sick at the stomach.’ Do not, therefore, say ‘I feel nauseous,’ unless you are sure you have that effect on others.”

It’s a great line, but The Elements of Style was first published in 1918. Can it really be trusted to capture English as it is today? Enter the Merriam-Webster-approved counter argument: language, like the bottommost contents of a vomit bag, is fluid. Decades of popular usage have effectively rendered “nauseous” and “nauseated” synonyms (in fact, people say “I’m nauseous” to convey “I want to barf” far more than they say “I’m nauseated”) and we might as well treat them as such. For this reason, Webster’s dictionary lists “affected with nausea” as a valid second definition for “nauseous,” and includes a note saying that anyone who argues against this interpretation is mistaken. This is one of the many grammar rules you’re better off ignoring.

Of course, snobs will be snobs. And we say, if you’re going to be an English purist, you might as well go whole hog and say the word “nausea,” technically, should only refer to seasickness. That’s where the word comes from, anyway: the Greek “naus,” meaning “ship.” Any other quibbles are just a drop in the ocean.

Ready for a real language puzzle? This three-letter word has more than 600 meanings.