Nauseous and nauseated both describe the feeling of nausea. However, the adjective nauseous traditionally means ‘to cause nausea,’ while the verb nauseated means ‘to feel nausea.’
What is the difference between nauseous and nauseated?
Since the mid-19th century, people have used both “nauseous” and “nauseated” to describe the experience of feeling ill. But while using these terms interchangeably is acceptable, it’s important to understand their original meanings:
- The adjective nauseous describes something that causes nausea.
- The verb nauseated describes the experience of becoming ill with nausea.
What is nausea?
According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, the word nausea is a mass noun for “the feeling one has just before vomiting” (Garner 619). If you’ve ever hurled the contents on your stomach, you know how this experience also aligns with a strong aversion to something or a feeling of disgust.
Nausea vs. nauseate?
When the feeling of nausea turns into an action, the corresponding verb is nauseate (619). So, what’s the difference? Let’s take a look:
- “Cleaning the litter box gives me severe nausea.” (mass noun)
- “The litter box is going to nauseate me.” (verb)
What is nauseous?
In contrast, the adjective nauseous traditionally describes something as “inducing nausea” (619). So, what can we describe as nauseous? Let’s see: rotten food, sewage waste, or blood? Or, perhaps even mysterious sticky surfaces or the anatomy dissections in biology class?
As we can see, we can use the adjective to describe how “the room has a nauseous stench,” or how “we threw away the nauseous leftovers.” But like the noun “nausea,” the adjective also implies how something is disgusting or offensive to the senses.
The debate over nauseous vs. nauseated
The issue put forth by prescriptivists involves the use of “nauseous” to describe something affected by nausea. By a grammarian’s logic, “what is nauseous makes one feel nauseated,” where “nauseated” is the past participle of “nauseate” (619).
Replacing nauseous with nauseated does, in fact, overstep the function of the verb’s past participle. For example,
- “The leftovers made Gina feel nauseous.”
- “Gina was nauseated by the leftover food.”
Based on these examples, traditional linguists would assume that Gina became a source of sickness, rather than feeling nausea, herself. However, all common usage changes over time, which is clearly the case with nauseous vs. nauseated.
20th Century English now uses “nauseous” as a predicate adjective to describe sentence subjects and modify linking verbs, such as “be,” “become,” or “feel.” In fact, people are now more likely to use nauseous instead of nauseated to describe “feeling sick to their stomach.” But if you don’t believe us, ask The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Dictionary (AHD).
Back in 1965, only 12 percent of AHD’s Usage Panel approved of using nauseous in place of nauseated for the sentence, “Roller coasters make me nauseous.” But over the last 55 years, AHD’s Panelists grew warmer to the word adjective in place of the verb, with approval ratings reaching 28 percent by 1988, 61 percent in 1999, and 77 percent by 2013.
What does nauseous mean?
The word nauseous is an adjective that traditionally means ‘causing nausea’ or ‘sickness.’ For example,
- “I left to avoid the room’s nauseous stench.”
- “The decaying food left a nauseous trail of grease in the refrigerator.”
- “Poor dental hygiene often correlates with nauseous bacterial colonies.”
- “He hates the food’s nauseous, mushy texture.”
However, Modern English uses the adjective nauseous to also mean ‘affected with nausea’ or ‘disgust.’ For example,
- “The long car ride made me feel nauseous.”
- “The patient’s rotting cavities left the dentist shaken and nauseous.”
- “I became nauseous from the toxic smoke.”
- “A nauseous feeling came over me as I read to their pedantic rants.”
Related terms include the adverb nauseously and the noun nauseousness, which are used in sentences like,
- “The milk has been nauseously churning within a filthy canister.”
- “Pregnant women may experience some nauseousness throughout their first trimester.”
 Bilious, green, ill, nauseated, qualmish, queasy, sick, sickly, sickish, squeamish, unsettled, upset, unwell, woozy.
 Awful, disgusting, emetic, foul, gross, horrible, nasty, nauseating, noxious, odious, offensive, rancid, repellent, repugnant, repulsive, revolting, sickening, stomach-turning, upsetting, vile.
 Healthy, well.
 Agreeable, appealing, attractive, delicious, desirable, healthy, innocuous, inoffensive, palatable, pleasing, restorative, savory, sweet, wholesome.
Etymology of nauseous
According to Lexico, the word nauseous originated in the 17th century from Latin nauseousus, which stems from the word nausea for ‘seasickness.’
What does nauseated mean?
The word nauseated is the past participle and past tense form of the verb nauseate. To be “nauseated” means that ‘to affect’ or ‘become affected by nausea or disgust.’ For example,
- “The stench nauseated everyone in attendance.”
- “I’m too nauseated to eat.”
- “Stay home if you feel nauseated.”
- “She is nauseated by the amount of trash in the yard.”
- “The thought of moving to New York nauseated him.”
- “The sites’ trending content left us feeling nauseated.”
Appall, disgust, displease, distress, gross-out, offend, put off, repel, repulse, revolt, sicken, turn one’s stomach.
Attract, appeal, delight, entice, entrance, lure, please, tempt.
Etymology of nauseated
The verb nauseate entered the English language in the mid 17th century from Latin nauseat- (‘made to feel sick’) and the verb nauseare. Both Latin terms derive from the noun nausea, which stems from Greek nausia for ‘ship.’
Can we use nauseous instead of nauseating?
While we can use “nauseous” instead of “nauseated,” we shouldn’t replace “nauseating” with “nauseous.” To explain, we have to lean on traditional arguments involving verb tense forms:
When to use nauseating?
The word nauseating is the present participle of the verb ‘nauseate,’ which means we can say:
- “Am/are/is nauseating” (present continuous)
- “Was/were nauseating” (past continuous)
- “Will be nauseating” (future continuous)
- “Have/has been” or “had been nauseating” (present/past perfect continuous)
- “Will have been nauseating” (future perfect continuous)
For these tenses, the word “nauseating” means ‘to cause nausea’ in a continuous fashion. Sewage is nauseating. Rotten food is nauseating. But is sewage or rotten food nauseated? No, because the nauseating subject is not experiencing sickness— it causes nausea.
If we replace “nauseating” with “nauseous,” there’s no distinction between what is sick and what can make you sick. For example, if someone said “I am nauseous,” would you assume they meant “I am nauseating”? Probably not.
“I am nauseating” means “I am making something sick,” while “I am nauseous” means “I am affected with nausea” or “I cause nausea.” If we use “nauseous” for “nauseating,” we lose the sense of an action taking place.
When nauseous reads as “nauseating”
When you read “nauseous” as “nauseating,” the word is almost always written as an attributive adjective (adjectives that modify the following noun). For example,
- “The nauseous [read as nauseating] supper ruined my weekend.”
- “The nauseous [read as nauseating] experience tormented me for years.”
Additional reading: Related to nauseous vs. nauseated
For more lessons on commonly confused words, check out The Word Counter’s content for topics like:
If grammar mistakes make you nauseated, then double-check your understanding of nauseous vs. nauseated with the following quiz.
- True or false: grammar purists prefer to use “nausea” in place of “nauseated.”
- The word nauseous traditionally means _______________.
a. Causing nausea
c. Affected by nausea
d. A and B
- The new meaning of nauseous means ________________.
b. Affected by nausea
c. To disgust
d. Causing nausea
- The statement “I am nauseating” means ___________.
a. I am nauseated.
b. I am nauseous.
c. I am causing nausea.
d. A and B
- Which of the following is a verb?
- Which of the following is an adjective?
- Which of the following is not a noun?
d. B and C
- Garner, B. “Nausea, nauseous.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 619.
- “Nausea.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
- “Nauseate.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
- “Nauseate.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
- “Nauseous.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020.
- “Nauseous.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
- “Nauseous.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.