by Liz Walter
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 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.
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.
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.