Adjectives, for example...

Suspicious, fearful, stressful, hopeful, etc...

These adjectives describe that the addressee causes the certain quality or has himself the quality. "A fearful man" may mean a man who's afraid or a man who causes fear. But "a fearful storm" obviously mean a storm causing fear, evidently for it can't possess itself the fear as feeling.

After that, I assumed that "a delightful/hopeful/woeful/stressful man" may mean both a man causing effect and a man having such feeling, depending on the context. How this happened and is there any term to categorize such adjectives?

  • It's just polysemy, the rule rather than the exception with words, manifesting where one might expect it to. Many adjectives used to be defined 'of, like or pertaining to ...', and there are many ways to pertain to (hope, woe etc). However, I'm almost certain 'delightful' is never used for 'delighted', and reasonably sure 'stressful' is not used for 'full of stress'. Mar 31, 2015 at 14:14
  • I've never heard delightful used to mean that the person is delighted, it always means that they cause delight.
    – Barmar
    Apr 6, 2015 at 18:27

1 Answer 1


This is completely and entirely thanks to the fluidity of English as a language. One of the editors of Merriam-Webster actually addresses this in a short video about "hopefully". It is our use as English speakers that has transformed these words from their stricter or original senses. The transformation is happening (as we speak!) with the word "nauseous". Strict grammarians will take offense at:

All of this stinky cheese makes me nauseous.

The truth of the matter is that a dictionary look-up of "nauseous" will now refer you to "nauseating". Transformations of actor and acted in adjectives will continue, and the easiest way has clearly been to just apply the same word for both situations, as you have suggested.

Hopefully all this grammar nonsense of didn't make you nauseous, too...

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