Nauseated/Nauseous: The Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Debate

Johanna Stoberock, author of "Pigs," discusses a distinct difference in how writers use language: the infamous descriptive versus prescriptive debate. 

Johanna Stoberock, Writing For
3-minute read

When I received the copyedited manuscript of my novel, "Pigs," I was dismayed. "I know how to write," I thought. "I know I do." But, suddenly, faced with all those queries, I wasn’t so sure.

I went through the pages, my heart sinking as I realized that, yes, my copyeditor was right. Commas have a place in writing, and I hadn’t been using them to the best of their ability. And all those run on sentences? Well, some of them seemed important rhythmically, but so many on every page? Some of my words definitely needed to be trimmed.

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I gratefully typed “accept” to query after query until I stopped short at a different kind of request: permission to turn “the girls felt nauseous” into “the girls felt nauseated.”

I’d hit up against the prescriptive/descriptive debate, and it was time to pick a side.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the debate:

Linguists, those folks who study the way language is used, tend to take what’s called a descriptive approach to grammar. They look at how we speak, and take as “correct” the idiosyncrasies of usage. They understand language to be mutable.

Grammarians, on the other hand, those folks who look at the way language itself is constructed, tend to take what’s called a prescriptive approach. They ask people to shape writing to the existing rules. They understand language to be fixed.

Should they write the way their characters think...or should they write the way we all wish we thought?

Novelists (and their copyeditors) come up against this debate all the time. Should they write the way their characters think, with all the grammatical messiness of incoherent thought, or should they write the way we all wish we thought, clearly and without breaking any rules?

Sometimes the answer is easy. You’re writing a scene, and your narration moves inside your character’s head. Your character happens to be a twelve-year old girl who has grown up without books, without school, without anyone teaching her the niceties of grammar. Would she think, when stumbling upon a boy in a barrel, “I wonder 'whom' he belongs to?” or would she think, “I wonder 'who' he belongs to?” Who, right? A prescriptive approach would say, “whom,” but a descriptive approach would recognize that the girl would never think that way.

It gets trickier, though, when you’re not deep inside a character’s head but, rather, writing about her from the outside. Is it okay for your omniscient narrator to make descriptive choices? There’s no easy answer: thus the debate.

So how does nauseous/nauseated fit into this?

Technically, nauseous means “causing nausea,” and nauseated means “affected with nausea.” Clearly, prescriptively, my copyeditor was right. But who uses “nauseated”? No one. I polled my friends: every single one feels nauseous when they have the flu. I polled my colleagues: they all felt nauseous at having to make a choice. And then I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and there it was: the OED, in this case, bows to usage. While “nauseous” entered the English language in 1618 as “causing nausea,” since 1839 it has been used to mean “affected with nausea, having an unsettled stomach” as well.

I’m all for clarity—add those commas where they should go! But as to the debate of the hour, I’m going full on descriptive here. The way we use language changes all the time, and the thought of “nauseated” leaves me a little queasy.

Johanna Stoberock is the author of "Pigs" (Red Hen Press, 2019).