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What's the difference between "to frighten" and "to scare"? I've heard both, but have never been able to figure out the difference.

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I would suggest that 'frighten' is more intense than 'scare'. Although they are (very) similar, being scared is less serious than being frightened. That is definitely a second-order effect though; to a first approximation, they are (almost) equivalent.

  • 1
    Thank You, Jonathan. It was my suspicion, too, but I didn't dare to put it forth here. – brilliant Nov 28 '10 at 5:52
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    I agree but it's the speech part that differs. Colloquially, one says scared, but often in writing, one reads frightened. I generally would not actually say frightened but would use it in certain written contexts. Also, in certain spoken contexts, I would only use scared of: to be scared of flying, to be scared of making a fool of oneself. But: to be frightened of one's own shadow [idiom] – Lambie Aug 27 '18 at 13:49
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The two words are synonyms and may be used interchangeably. Scare comes the Old Norse word skirra meaning "frighten."

  • See "this," for more on "scary" and "this" for more on "frightening." – Lisa Beck Nov 25 '18 at 4:47
  • @LisaBeck: Your point being? The OP asked about the verbs, not the adjectives. And you haven't demonstrated a dime's worth of difference even between the adjectives. If you really want to justify your downvote, find a source that claims different degrees of intensity for these words. – Robusto Nov 25 '18 at 13:38
  • Fair enough, @Robusto. I didn't know comments were limited to specific parts of speech, but in my defense both of my links contain links to the verbs "scare" and "frighten." As for why I added them, well, I like citations and you didn't provide any. While you chew on that, may I recommend a book for you? I think this one would be a good one to start with. – Lisa Beck Mar 10 at 12:34
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I would use frighten when I mean something with the hint of a surprise. Scare would mean something more gradual, as in "to scare with fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD)"

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When I use frightened I use it like it has a bit of tense and suspicion in it. Scared just feels like it’s horrible and creepy. Also frightening is more severe than scared.

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First of all, I agree with Jonathan Leffler — "frightening" is more intense than "scary," but many do not really make that distinction and use them quite interchangeably. Unlike using "can" when "may" should be used, most people will not correct another if they use "scary" when it is felt that "frightening" is a better choice of word. The difference between "scary" and "frightening" is not as well defined as "can" and "may." Furthermore, the difference between "scary" and "frightening" is not taught in school.

Even if you want to help a person out by suggesting a more accurate descriptor, it isn't likely to go over too well. For example, if you were to meet someone who had survived the Paradise wildfire and they described it as "scary" and you corrected them by saying, "Do you mean frightened?" you're going to come across as a real jerk.

Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between two words is to put them into context. I'll start with this:

Hearing ghosts rattle their chains in a Halloween haunted house is scary; hearing someone yell, "Heil Hitler, Heil Trump" in a theater is frightening.


I'll add to it if I think of others.

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