Firstly, let’s make this clear:
- pain = noun; e.g. “I have pain in my arm.”
- painful = adjective; e.g. “My arm is painful.”
- in pain = phrase that functions like an adjective; e.g. “The man was in pain.”
There is no verb in this word family (to pain is not a common verb; let’s forget about it). So, both painful and in pain are used like adjectives. What’s the difference?
The Difference: Painful vs. In pain
Painful describes a thing (such as a surgery, experience, or body part) not a person. Here are some examples:
- The surgery was painful.
- Getting stitches was painful.
- Bee stings can be quite painful.
- That was a painful experience.
- My neck is painful.
Again, people cannot be painful.
- Wrong: I am painful.
- Wrong: The doctor saw the painful man.
In pain describes a person (or animal) who is feeling pain. Here are some examples:
- The man was in pain.
- I took some medicine because I was in pain.
- You look like you are in pain.
Note: You cannot use ‘in pain’ before a noun.
- Not: The in pain woman was screaming. (woman = noun)
- Correct: The woman who was in pain was screaming.
That’s the main difference. Let’s review…
- pain = noun; e.g. “I have pain in my arm. “
- painful = adjective describing a thing or experience; e.g. “My arm is painful.”
- in pain = adjective describing a person; e.g. “The man was in pain.”
Do you think you understand? Take the pain, painful, and in pain quiz.
The doctor told the woman to go to the hospital if she felt .
Getting a tattoo is .
The man said he had been for several hours.
The lasted for 30 minutes.
The doctor gave me some tablets to take if I’m .
Elderly people often suffer from in their knees and back.
Biting your tongue is .
I hope this lesson hasn’t been too painful.
– Matthew Barton / Creator of Englishcurrent.com