Scared, Afraid, and Frightened

Halloween is here, and you might want to talk about your favorite horror movie or ghost story. But what are the rights words to use? Scared, afraid, and frightened are often confusing for English students, so let’s break down their meaning and grammar.


Usually, scared, afraid, and frightened all mean the same thing, a way to talk about the feeling of fear.


My sister is scared of spiders.

My sister is afraid of spiders.

My sister is frightened of spiders.


However, sometimes, afraid can be used to express regret.

I’m afraid I can’t come to your Halloween party.

The store was out of Halloween candy, so I’m afraid I brought boxes of raisins instead.


Word Order

One big difference between afraid and the other adjectives to describe fear (scared, frightened, terrified, horrified, spooked) is where it goes in a sentence.

Afraid, scared and frightened can all go after a noun.


The puppies are afraid of the cat.

The puppies are scared of the cat.

The puppies are frightened of the cat.


Scared and frightened can also go before a noun, but afraid never goes before a noun.

The scared puppies ran away from the kitten.

The frightened puppies ran away from the kitten.

The afraid puppies ran away from the kitten.

Followed by Infinitive Verbs

You can use infinitive verbs (to-verbs) after afraid and scared, but it’s not common to use them after frightened:

I am afraid to watch “The Shining.”

I am scared to watch “The Shining.”

I am frightened to watch “The Shining.”

Followed by Nouns

Scared and frightened can be followed by of or by to connect them with nouns or noun phrases, but afraid is only followed by of, never by, to connect it with nouns or noun phrases.

I’m afraid of pumpkins.

I’m afraid by pumpkins.

Usually, when you use “of” with these words, you are talking about a state of mind that you experience all the time.

He’s been scared of bats since he was a small child.

I’m frightened of spiders, so I never want to see the movie “Arachnophobia.” 

When you use “by” with these words, you are usually talking about a sudden event, with consequences.

The boy was frightened by the loud noise, and began to cry.

I wanted to knock on your door, but I was scared by the big dog in the yard. 

Participial Adjectives

Perhaps the reason that afraid is used differently than scared and frightened (and terrified, horrified, petrified, and spooked) is that all these words, except for afraid, are participial adjectives, meaning that they are made from the participial forms of verbs .

In general, the past participle form (-ed, or irregular) describe how a person feels.

I am frightened by ghost stories.

Julie is terrified of mice.

I am scared to walk through the graveyard at night.

The present participle form (-ing) of participial adjective describe the things that evoke those feelings.

I read a frightening ghost story, and now I can’t sleep.

Julie saw a terrifying mouse in the kitchen. 

*scared is a little different, because “scaring” isn’t an adjective. Use scary instead.

The graveyard is scary at night.



Cute Ghost