Scared, frightened, afraid and terrified: talking about fear

by Liz Walter

Robert Daly/OJO Images/Getty
Robert Daly/OJO Images/Getty

The other day I was teaching a lesson on things that make us afraid. We started by looking at the common ‘synonyms’ afraid, scared and frightened. One of the things I frequently do with my students is ask them for other words in the same word family because this is a skill they are likely to need in English exams.

It made me remember one of the most difficult aspects of English, which is that words which seem like synonyms can have important differences. For instance, we often teach our students about adjectives of feelings or emotions that can be formed with -ed to describe people and -ing to describe the things that cause the feelings and emotions.

Frightened and frightening are good examples:

The noises were frightening. / It was dark and I was frightened.

The same pattern works for the more emphatic adjectives terrified and terrifying:

The storm was terrifying. / She’s terrified of dogs.

However, we do not use this pattern for scared or afraid. Something that makes us scared is scary and there is no related adjective for afraid:

The high waves were really scary. / He’s scared of the dark.

                I’m afraid of flying.

Scared, frightened and terrified all have related verbs: scare, frighten, terrify:

Don’t shout – you’ll frighten the children.

                The masks were designed to terrify their enemies.

However, there is no verb associated with afraid.

Scared, frightened, afraid and terrified are probably the most common adjectives to describe feeling fear, but if you want to broaden your vocabulary, there are many other useful alternatives.

Petrified is a very strong word, and also has the corresponding word petrifying:

Jumping out of the plane was petrifying. / I was absolutely petrified.

We often make the word scared stronger by saying we are scared stiff, and if someone is so scared that they cannot think clearly and do not know what to do, we can say that they are panic-stricken.

If someone is slightly afraid of something that is going to happen in the future, we could describe them as apprehensive. A timid person is shy and nervous, while a more negative word for someone who is not brave is cowardly, usually implying that they were too scared to do what was morally right.

Finally, there are several colourful idioms and phrases we use to describe feelings of fear. We can say that our hair stood on end, or that we were shaking in our shoes, quaking in our boots or shaking like a leaf. We can say that our heart was hammering, our heart was in our mouth or that we broke out in a cold sweat. For extreme and serious fear, we could say that our blood ran cold.


13 thoughts on “Scared, frightened, afraid and terrified: talking about fear

  1. Pingback: Scared, frightened, afraid and terrified: talking about fear – Cambridge Dictionary About words blog (Aug 17, 2016) | Editorial Words

  2. Rekha.k.murthy

    Sine qua non lead me to have thought of word ” petrified”
    So, meaningful in itself that we are able to barely measure or quantify the emotions. Another one is empathy in emotion! Look into mirror and can go on acting upon feelings of different kinds and gestures.
    Today’s words were very much likable!

    1. Amira Ma

      To Khalil: Definitely cowardly- not a coward, which is a noun. Check your grammar before you teach others, please. Cowardly, just like the word friendly, is an adjective, not an adverb like badly or carefully.

      adjective UK ​ /ˈkaʊ.ə US ​ /ˈkaʊ.ɚ

      This was a particularly brutal and cowardly attack.
      They are guilty of a cowardly failure to address the problem.

  3. Rahul

    Hi! Surely this is going to help me a lot. When i read your blog it give me happiness and lot of confidence and convince me that one day this” scary english ” will be pleasant to me. Thank you.

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