‘scared’ v ‘afraid’

Wrong: “Can you hold my hand as I am scared of the dark.”
Right: “… as the dark scares me.” or “… as I am afraid of the dark.”

This is one of the most perplexing pieces of English usage advice I’ve encountered. I came across it by accident. Gretchen McCulloch from All Things Linguistic  posted an extract from an article by James Harbeck on BBC Culture on the topic of Singlish, ‘the unofficial language – or dialect? or slang?’ of Singapore, which is more-or-less based on English but with many non-standard features and many loan-words from Malay, various Chinese topolects and Tamil. It functions as the basilect (low form) of Singapore English, on a continuum with the mesolect (middle form), Singapore Standard English and the acrolect (high form), which is consistent with international Standard Basic English.

The Singapore government hates Singlish. In 2000, it launched the Speak Good English Movement. Its website has a page on ‘Common English Mistakes’, one of which I’ve quoted at the beginning of this post.

The website does not give any reason for this advice, and I can’t find anything to support it. Afraid is an adjective and scared is the past participle form of a verb, which can be used in verb-type ways (in perfect aspect or passive voice) or in adjective-type ways (attributively or predicatively). Afraid is more common and sounds more formal. At the end of the movie version of The Sound of Music (and possibly the stage version, which I have never seen), the little girl says ‘I’m scared’, not ‘I’m afraid’.

The rationale of the advice against I’m scared of the dark seems to be either ‘If you have a choice between a ‘real’ adjective and V-pp used as an adjective, choose the ‘real’ adjective’ or ‘V-pps should not be used as adjectives at all’. The second is untenable; V-pps have been used as adjectives for a very long time. The first may have some substance to it, but would need to be explicitly stated and supported by evidence.

Google Ngrams shows that the usage of scared of the dark v afraid of the dark approximates the usage of scared v afraid, and a general Google search supports this (approximately 5.6 million results for ‘scared of the dark’ v approximately 11.5 million for ‘afraid of the dark’). The dark scares me is certainly grammatical and understandable, but almost no-one says or writes it. Google Ngrams show no results at all and a general Google search 9,760 results, compared to the millions for ‘scared of the dark’  and ‘afraid of the dark’. (Yes, I know those search terms are not directly equivalent, but it doesn’t seriously change my point.)

In the absence of any more information from the Speak Good English Movement, I won’t be changing my usage. Neither, I suspect, will 5 million-plus Singaporeans. In any case, there would seem to be more pressing issues in non-standard v standard usage.

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3 thoughts on “‘scared’ v ‘afraid’

  1. Here’s a useless fact – “I’m scared of the dark” in Gaelic is literally “The darkness is putting fear upon me”. (Tha an dorchadas a’ cuireadh eagal orm).

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  2. That’s really interesting and I’m intrigued by the idea of “real adjective” vs v.p.p. I think there’s something to it, maybe us unconsciously feeling “afraid” is more “solid” as it’s exclusively an adjective.

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  3. Pingback: Unexplained and puzzling usage advice | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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