Could you explain the difference between these two sentences:

I'm frightened BY spiders.

I'm frightened OF spiders.

Obviously both are used in American English in the sense "have a fear of spiders/be afraid of spiders," but is one more correct than the other?

Please, consider this sourced example:

I have been frightened by spiders since I was very young. For the following three reasons, spiders will never be pets of mine. The first reason that I am scared of spiders is their appearance.

Yet take a random group of people and it is more than likely there will be among them those who are frightened by spiders, and those who are scared of heights.

Google Books

Ngram AmEng

  • 4
    Frightened of is used to show a general or hypothetical state (... snakes / horses / an avalanche happening / floods ...). Frightened by is usually used to address something more specific / immediate (... this enormous spider that's just gone under the sofa / his sudden change / this news / the level of the river ...). Mar 2, 2016 at 9:44
  • "Scared of heights" from your example. Does "scared by heights" mean the same?
    – NVZ
    Mar 2, 2016 at 10:03
  • 1
    This will be interesting. englishgrammar.org/afraid-frightened-scared
    – NVZ
    Mar 2, 2016 at 10:07
  • @EdwinAshworth +1 True. Incidenally, both the OP's examples go with of.
    – Kris
    Mar 2, 2016 at 10:12

1 Answer 1


Both expressions appear to have currency according to a very quick look through the Google periscope. The Ngram chart shows an interesting result, suggesting that scared of emerged in the mid to late 19th C., which is contemporary with examples offered up by couple of online dictionaries: Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It's not quite a "smoking pen", but it's interesting all the same.

Scared by has a robust earlier history, but seems to have lost preeminence, at least in the unblinking eyes of Ngram, to Scared of.

The usual lexicons will define "scared," but seem mum on the subject of trailing prepositions.

Which brings us to the tags "American English" and "Colloquialism" - i.e. the world of anecdote and opinion.

A flight through today's Googleverse shows that people are scared of Donald Trump's candidacy, self-driving cars, and losing the fight with cancer. (Arachnophobes had better move over - it's a scary world out there.) Similarly, people in G-space have been scared by things: intruders, pit bulls and kids in Halloween costumes (well, sorta).

It's an observation backed by lifetime personal usage that one may be scared of things in the abstract, in the future, or on general principles, while scared by seems to denote an experience that is more immediate, proximate, and fang-baringly perilous.

Interestingly, more people seem scared of things than by them, at least if we bet the farm on Ngrams.

The two phrases aren't quite interchangeable, although they seem to be interchanged with a measure of indifferent impunity in the US, where most speakers are not scared of or by grammar books, rules, or curmudgeons who wield them.


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