Post to the Host

Host Garrison Keillor answers your questions about life, love, writing, authors, and of course, A Prairie Home Companion.

Send GK Your Question »

March 29, 2007 | 16 Comments

Dear Garrison,
I count on you, for our children's sake, to get this right....it's about grammar.

If one feels queasy, if one feels as if one were going to vomit, one is "nauseated." I believe that Alvin was nauseated when he drank beer after having fallen through the ice. If something causes one to be queasy, that something is "nauseous." (Then again, perhaps Alvin WAS nauseous.)

Lenten blessing to you and Alvin

Robin B.
Sewanee, TN

The difference between "nauseated" and "nauseous" was explained to me once by my sister-in-law in Boston but we were sitting in a bar in a hotel and I was paying more attention to some people at a nearby table, especially a woman in furs who looked Austrian and rich and a young man who was nuzzling her and plying her with drinks. The Austrian woman did not appear to be as fond of him as he was of her, and I found him rather, well, disgusting. So I immediately forgot the grammar lesson. My sister-in-law, by the way, was drinking a glass of white wine and I was drinking a ginger ale, so neither of us was feeling queasy. I can assure you that I wasn't. I am writing this at a desk a few feet away from a Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, which surely would clarify this whole question, but the book weighs as much as a 30.06 Remington and I am simply too tired to lift it. Sewanee is a place with powerful literary associations for me — the Sewanee Review, the Fugitive poets, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren and so forth, the "Ode to the Confederate Dead," and when someone named Robin from Sewanee tells me the difference between "nauseated" and "nauseous," I just automatically accept it. I'm that kind of guy. I respect authority. My rebellious years are far behind me. I drank back then and became nauseated by noxious liquids and perhaps behaved in a nauseous manner, but no more. Not if I can help it, which of course I can. Thanks for the advice.


16 Comments


Here's a quote from The American Heritage Dictionary online:

Traditional critics have insisted that nauseous is properly used only to mean "causing nausea" and that it is incorrect to use it to mean "affected with nausea...." Curiously, though, 88 percent of the Panelists prefer using 'nauseating' in the sentence 'The children looked a little green from too many candy apples and nauseating (not nauseous) rides.' Since there is a lot of evidence to show that nauseous is widely used to mean "feeling sick," it appears that people use nauseous mainly in the sense in which it is considered incorrect. In its "correct" sense it is being supplanted by nauseating.

One of the cool things about grammar is that it's a living, breathing thing. Some of the old rules are becoming (some more slowly than others) quaint or being supplanted. The important thing to remember is that we all of us live in glass houses, comes to grammar (Our guy uses four dots for an ellipsis, but doesn't leave a space and capitalize the following letter ["...to get this right....it's about grammar."]. Also, there are plenty of people who'll claim that "quote" is a verb. "Quotation" is the noun. Those people need to make an appointment with a proctological lumberjack.).

Words don't possess any inherent, essential meaning, and the point of language is simply to communicate. Sticklers are useful in English classes, but in other contexts, they make me plain nauseous.


hotdang! Couldn't he have just said "nauseated" is a verb and "nauseous" is an adjective?


Garrison,
Sewanee is also the home to the University of the South which has the Tennessee Williams Theatre. His grandfather, an Episcopal priest, was a graduate of the seminary there and when Williams died he left the royalties to his plays to the University. This was much contested by his remaining family but upheld by the courts.

Sewanee is also one of the most beautiful places on this earth and one you should visit. You will leave a changed man.


Mr. Keillor:

If only one could walk a mile in your mind for a day.


You could have selected a much lighter reference (in weight, not import): Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (and I'm guessing one is nearby). There you would find on p. 53: "Nauseous. Nauseated. The first means 'sickening to contemplate'; the second means 'sick at the stomach.' Do not, therefore, say 'I feel nauseous,' unless you are sure you have that effect on others."


Once upon a time there was a clear difference between nauseated and nauseous; however, language constantly evolves with usage, and when enough people have used nauseous to mean nauseated, then nauseous becomes a correct usage, much to my chagrin.

Here's another one that has changed recently: The word, "forte," as in, "I'm no good at that; it is not my forte," used to be pronounced "fort." However, by now enough people have mispronounced it "fortay" (like forte, the musical term) that almost no one pronounces it "fort" any more. Except me.


I'm surprised you didn't tell her it has become accepted, just as "one of the only" has become acceptable ... to everyone but me, apparently.


You could have selected a much lighter reference (in weight, not import): Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (and I'm guessing one is nearby). There you would find on p. 53: "Nauseous. Nauseated. The first means 'sickening to contemplate'; the second means 'sick at the stomach.' Do not, therefore, say 'I feel nauseous,' unless you are sure you have that effect on others."


Isn't the distinction between "nauseated" and "nauseous" a matter of vocabulary rather than grammar?


re: if one feels as if one were going to vomit, one is "nauseated."

i wish to quarrel with Robin: i believe it would be correct to say, "if one feels as if one is going to vomit . . . " or "if one were to feel as if one were going to vomit . . . " (but that to say, "if one feels as if one were going to vomit . . . " is not correct)

there's some 'subjunctive contrary to fact' stuff going on here, doncha see? gotta put it all together . . . get all those verbs merged . . .

also, Robin needs to check into the spacing between ellipsis points

but then, i'm only a copyeditor in Cupertino

b


Strunk and White:
"Do not, therefore, say 'I feel nauseous' unless you are sure you have that effect on others."


I realize that this particular conversation has already gone stale, but I can't resist adding to it (at length). Why, oh why do certain people continue to regard PHC as if every segment should be a grammatical exemplar? Is it only because the show periodically pokes self-deprecating fun at English majors? Those bits are humorous specifically because anybody who actually talked like the featured English major would be shunned as an impossibly pretentious jerk. I used to be very precise about my language use *before* I was an English major, and everybody wondered what country I came from. When I lapsed, I was congratulated for not talking like a documentary. The simple fact is that radio is talk, and we do not talk the way we write. Little errors that would make us look uneducated-- or at best careless-- in print just make us sound like normal people in speech. Everybody knows what we mean, so what's the point of drawing inappropriate attention to a simple sentiment with "correct" phrasing that sounds unnatural? That would be a stylistic problem much more serious for PHC than the use of "nauseous" for "nauseating." As an academic insider, I can say with some authority that the real problem with students' writing these days has nothing to do with grammatical niceties, but with an inability to think critically and empathetically about others' writing (or anything else, for that matter). Who cares if your grammar is unexceptionable if you have nothing interesting to say?


Or, as the Writer's Guide for "The Mother Earth News" used to say, "People who are nauseous usually are."


From Bill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words:

"Nauseous is an adjective describing something that causes nausea ('a nauseous substance'). As Bernstein neatly put it, people who are nauseated are no more nauseous than people who are poisoned are poisonous."


My mother, who at 88 still cares a great deal about proper usage, spent years drumming into me the proper use of "nauseous" and "nauseated." As a physician, I have therefore felt obligated to be correct in the use of those terms myself but try to pick and chose when to correct my patients. For example I forbear when they are nauseated enough that such grammatical aggravation might produce emesis.


m-w.com says that "I feel nauseous" is appropriate usage.

Previous Post:
« 

Next Post:
 »

Post to the Host Archive

Complete Post to the Host Archive


American Public Media © |   Terms and Conditions   |   Privacy Policy