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'Painful' or 'In Pain'? What Is the Difference? | Mastering Grammar

(Last Updated: 11 December 2023)


Painful vs In Pain: Understanding the Difference

The expressions painful and in pain might seem interchangeable, but they actually have different meanings and uses. This blog post will clarify the difference between them and provide you with examples to help you use them correctly.

What Does Painful Mean?

Painful means 'causing pain' and is used to describe the origin of pain, which can stem from a physical source (e.g., a cut, a wound, or a body part that causes pain) or a psychological source (e.g., an action, event, or experience that leads to emotional distress):

My right shoulder is very painful.

My grandfather's arthritis made walking painful for him.

The athlete's injury was so painful that he had to sit out the rest of the football match.

It was painful to see my best friend go through a difficult breakup.

Chris said that getting a tattoo was one of the most painful experiences he'd ever had.

When we describe someone as painful, it means that the person is annoying or difficult to deal with, causing frustration and irritation to others:

My ex-girlfriend is so painful to be around these days. She constantly brings up old arguments and makes me feel terrible.

My boss is so painful to work for—he's always micromanaging and criticising everything I do.

Karen is a painful person to be friends with because she always brings up embarrassing topics and makes everyone uncomfortable.

What Does In Pain Mean?

When someone feels pain, such as when they are injured, the correct expression to use is in pain. Using painful to describe how someone feels is a common mistake:

✅ Tom is in a lot of pain.
Tom is very painful.
Tom feels very painful.

Because of her back injury, Helen was in a great deal of pain.
Because of her back injury, Helen was really painful.
Because of her back injury, Helen felt really painful.

After the fall, he was in so much pain that he couldn't move his arm.
After the fall, he was so painful that he couldn't move his arm.
After the fall, he felt so painful that he couldn't move his arm.

In summary, painful describes the origin of pain, while in pain refers to someone feeling pain. By using these expressions correctly, you can more accurately describe what you or someone else is experiencing and avoid common mistakes.

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Examples from the Media

Dr. Tsai explains in the article that texting thumb is a painful inflammation of the tendon in the thumb. Toronto Star (2023)

A dignified, elderly woman emerged from the schoolroom wiping away tears. Loved ones died fighting for her right to vote. She honours them by doing so, despite the painful memories. The Sydney Morning Herald (2023)

Because he [Geoffrey Hill] is painful and requires attention from the reader, he is not an ingratiating figure; but if Hill is not Easy Readin', neither is the human psyche. The Washington Post (1993)

A young woman is in excruciating pain after her experimental brain surgery went wrong and doctors are refusing to help her because the surgeon who performed the technique has retired. —Daily Mail (2012)

He told staff he was in pain about 2am, and was taken to the next room to wait. Otago Daily Times (2022)

Real-World Examples of Misuse

Alternatively, you could say my tooth is hurting, I'm feeling a lot of pain in my tooth, or I have a bad toothache. These alternatives use a variety of vocabulary and phrasing to convey the same basic idea that the boy is experiencing tooth pain.

1. The word Restaurant should be capitalised as it is part of the proper noun Golden Restaurant.
2. The original sentence I feel very painful is incorrect because painful is an adjective that describes something causing pain, not the experience of feeling pain. The correct way to express this in English is to say I feel painIt feels painful, or It's painful. Alternatively, you could say It really hurts, which is more commonly used in everyday English to express the idea that something is causing a lot of pain.
3. Matchboxes is typically one word.
(Source: English Examiner for Junior Forms, Book 1A)
(Also by the Same Author: 1/2/3/4)

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