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Concourse 2

Expressing emotion

love fear sad
surprise anger happy

Unfortunately, this is an area where course materials often content themselves with a phrase-book approach to teaching, presenting learners with a list of verbs, adjectives and nouns (if they even get to that level of classification) and then hoping that the learners will somehow magically induce how the language works and what it actually represents.
That is not the line taken here.  The attempt will be at some kind of systematic approach to the language of emotion.


Six types of emotion

This site is not centrally concerned with cognitive psychology so you will spared an explanation of the various theories of emotion that circulate freely in the area.  We are concerned, after all, with teaching and learning English so we'll focus on what has been proposed as the six primary emotions and their characteristics and see what language we can use to express them.

These six primary emotions are represented in the pictures above.
Click here when you have identified them.


It is not as simple as it seems

Given the complications here, it does not seem that a useful approach is to teach the language of expressing, e.g., sadness or happiness, because so much will depend on the sort of happiness or sadness we are talking about.  Other areas are less problematic: surprise is pretty straightforward and there are only two sorts of fear.

See if you can add in some language exponents to this grid.  You need to think of verbs, adjectives and nouns in each category.  Then click on the eye open to reveal some ideas (which probably won't match, of course).

eye open
attract, be fond of, draw, enjoy, fancy, like, long for, look forward to, love, lust after, prefer, tempt, yearn for
beautiful, cute, enjoyable, gorgeous, likeable, loveable, lovely, loving, sexy, terrific, wonderful
affection, attractiveness, cuteness, gorgeousness, likeability, love, prettiness, seductiveness, sexiness
eye open
amuse, appreciate, delight, enjoy, entertain, like, relish, take delight in
content, delighted, enthralled, entrance, happy, keen, optimistic, overjoyed, proud, relieved, satisfied, serene
appreciation, contentment, delight, enjoyment, happiness, joy, optimism, pride, relief, satisfaction, serenity, zest
eye open
amaze, astonish, astound, flabbergast, shock, startle, stun, surprise
astounded, flabbergasted, shocked, startled, stunned, surprised
amazement, astonishment, awe, bewilderment, surprise, wonder
eye open
annoy, deplore, despise, disgust, envy, exasperate, grate, hate, infuriate, irritate, rage
angry, cross, envious, furious, infuriated, irritated, livid, maddened, peeved, vexed
anger, annoyance, disgust, envy, exasperation, fury, hatred, infuriation, irritation, peevishness, rage, vexation
eye open
empathise, exclude, leave out, let down, mourn, regret, sadden, shame, sympathise, upset
disappointing, empathetic, excluded, humiliated, left out, sad, shamed, shameful, sympathetic, upset
chagrin, disappointment, empathy, exclusion, humiliation, sadness, shame, sympathy, upset
eye open
alarm, disturb, dread, fear, horrify, panic, perturb, scare, sicken, terrify, upset
alarmed, anxious, disturbed, frightened, horrified, panicked, sickened, terrified, upset
alarm, anxiety, fear, fright, horror, panic, terror

There are some things to note when planning what to present.

  1. A large number of the adjectives have both the -ed and the -ing endings depending on whether it is the reaction or the thing itself which is being described.  For example, shocking-shocked, horrifying-horrified, humiliating-humiliated, surprising-surprised, amazing-amazed.  If your students aren't already familiar with this distinction, life will be very hard for all of you.
  2. Word formation is also an issue.  Many of the words derive from others by suffixation and occasional prefixation so we have, e.g., sad-sadden-sadness, like-likeable-likeability, cute-cuteness, sexy-sexiness, fury-infuriate and so on.  The rules are subtle and the area hard to learn.
    For more, see the guide to word formation, linked below.

it and me

It and Me

The direction of transitivity is important.

There are five important ways to express emotion linguistically:

  1. Saying what it does to me.
        It delights me
  2. Saying how I feel.
        I'm delighted
  3. Saying what I think or feel about it.
        I think it's delightful
  4. Saying what it is.
        It is delightful
  5. Saying what it is like.
        It is so delightful that I want to go again

Think of a way to do the above five things with the six basic emotional categories and then click here.
There is, by the way, a good deal of overlap.

None of these is actually very challenging structurally.

  1. Sections 1 and 2 are lexically the most challenging and require
    1. the ability to use a number of verbs allied to the emotions
    2. knowledge of participle adjectives derived from the verbs
    3. the ability to be able to select which nouns are likely to follow the To + possessive structure (as in, e.g.:
          To my horror
          To my relief

  2. Using the nouns in Section 4 is actually quite uncommon but also quite straightforward providing one remembers that they are often modified by adjectives.
  3. Sections 3 and 5 only require the use of a very few mental process verbs such as think, feel, find etc. and knowledge of the verb be and some other copular verbs such as seem, appear etc.  (Section 3 also requires some knowledge of the way we use the -ing participle adjectives, of course.)

Verbs: subjects and objects

It is important to distinguish between the verbs that can only have animate, sentient beings as subjects and those which have people as the objects or can be used in both ways.
For example, we can both infuriate and be infuriated, entertain and be entertained but inanimate objects or abstract nouns cannot love, hate, relish, enjoy or be upset.  Using some of the example above, we get:

  verbs with animate subjects only verbs with people as objects and subjects or with inanimate subjects
love love, like, be fond of, enjoy, prefer, look forward to, fancy, yearn for, long for, lust after draw, tempt, attract
joy enjoy, take delight in, relish, appreciate, like entertain, delight, amuse
surprise shock, surprise, amaze, astonish, stun, startle, flabbergast, astound
anger rage, hate, despise, envy, deplore grate, exasperate, irritate, annoy, disgust, infuriate
sadness upset, sadden, exclude, sympathise, empathise shame, leave out, let down
fear horrify, disturb, terrify, sicken, scare, perturb, upset, fear, dread, panic, alarm

All the examples for surprise and fear have people as subjects and objects but no inanimate entities can be the subjects of these verbs.  By using a table like this, it is possible to generate, for example:
    I hate the noise.
    The noise irritates me.
    The film attracted her.
    The book annoyed me.
    She shocked him and he astounded her.
    The sight horrified them.
etc. but the table won't generate:
    *I irritated the noise.
    *The dog surprised the shot.
    *Peter horrified the film.


Languages handle these concepts differently and verbs which take animate or inanimate objects vary across them.  Learners will make mistakes such as the last three examples in this list unless their awareness is raised of the possible subjects a verb may take.



This is a serious issue and lack of collocational knowledge results in dubious (at best) comments such as:
    I am satisfied to see him.
    I am zestful to learn.
    It always panics me.
    She yearned for the book.
    I felt a lot of upset.
    He showed zest.
and so on.

Often, this is an issue of careful explanation of meaning.  Understanding of the meaning of zestful, for example, will avoid such sentences.
Sometimes, however, natural collocation rather than meaning is the issue.
It is almost always possible for native speakers to imagine situations where unlikely combinations of noun and verb and noun and adjective might occur but we are talking here about likely combinations (i.e., natural collocates).
There are subtleties of meaning and use which need to be carefully handled.  For example,

we can have but (probably) can't have
I am fond of this book.
I always prefer sugar with coffee.
She longs for him.
The holiday tempts me.
It's a cute garden.
The game entertained me.
She relished the opportunity.
I appreciated his sympathy.
The story amused me.
An infuriated dog appeared.
I am fond of this play.
I always fancy sugar with coffee.
They long for a raindrop.
The story tempts me.
It's a cute sky.
The food entertained me.
She relished the pencil.
I appreciated his eyebrow.
The beach amused me.
A vexed dog appeared.
and so on.

Modifying emotion

We can use a number of strategies to soften or strengthen the expression of how people feel.  We can do this by using adverbs with adjectives and verbs, adjectives with nouns or by selecting a different word.  For example

instead of we can soften or strengthen it
It's an enjoyable book. It's an immensely enjoyable book.
It's a slightly amusing book.
He's angry. He's slightly miffed.
He's (absolutely) livid.
She's ashamed. She's deeply ashamed.
She's a little shamefaced.
She's happy. She's delirious with joy.
She's quite pleased.
I'm a bit nervous. I'm extremely nervous.
I'm terrified.
I'm relieved. I'm so relieved.
That's a huge relief!

There's a great temptation in this area to start to introduce all sorts of inappropriate idiomatic language such as over the moon, sick as a parrot, up the wall, going spare and so on.  You will find lists of such things on the web because people like making lists.
This is a temptation well worth resisting.


Teaching expressing emotions


A cultural note

Cultures vary concerning how easily people talk about their feelings and emotions.
According to some, emotions are invariable across cultures but how they are expressed and perceived may be very different indeed.  In some cultures, for example, the outward expression of anger is frowned on and may even result in social ostracism.  In others, serenity is preferred to zest and excitement and so on.  Showing too much relish in some activities may also be considered a sign of shallowness and lack of sophistication.
This is an area to handle with some sensitivity, therefore.


A linguistic note

Translating the words for emotions, even the primary ones above, is never a risk-free enterprise.  For example, the emotion of happiness will, in some languages, include other notions, usually peace and serenity as well as joy.
It is also claimed that languages have unique words for emotions for which no reliable translation in English exists and the reverse may frequently be true.  For example, Mexican Spanish has an expression (pena ajena) to describe the embarrassment one feels at someone else's humiliation and English has freely borrowed the term schadenfreude from German to describe the pleasure one may take at another's misfortune.  Dutch has a word (gezelligheid) which in English requires a whole sentence and describes the sense of togetherness one feels in being at home, safe and warm and among friends and family.
As usual, context is vital if the words in English are to be fully understood.


What's involved?

The area requires approaches which combine structure, lexis and functional competence.  It can't be done in a couple of hours at any level.  As a very rough guide, you might consider:

level structure lexis functions
A1 and A2 copular verbs.
subject + feel / think / be
the primary emotions and some common subdivisions saying how you feel
asking how others feel
B1 and B2 verbs forms to explain how things affect you subdivisions of the primary emotions
-ing and -ed adjectives
the more common nouns and verbs from the list above
expressing more complex emotions
being forceful and softening what we say
C1 and C2 all the structures with an understanding of the forms of transitivity words to express a range of subtlety in emotions and finer distinctions appreciating style, both spoken and written in the expression of emotion
subtleties of strengthening and softening


Things to avoid

overloading learners
in the categorisation above, there are six primary emotions subdivided into 25 areas.  Clearly, that's too much to handle for most learners except as revision at higher levels.  It pays, therefore, to be selective and focus on one or two primary emotions at a time, using level-appropriate realisations.
scattershot approaches
many course materials and worthy websites supply lists of exponents for expressing emotions of varying usefulness.  This is the phrase-book approach and is unsuited to any kind of systematic handling of the area.

Things to do

  1. obvious visuals
    People respond well to pictures of other people.  We have evolved very sensitive mechanisms for identifying emotions in others from their expressions and gestures.  The 6 images at the top of this page, for example, work well for identifying primary emotions and the web is laden with images of people expressing various other emotions.  Here are some but it isn't difficult to find more.
    anger disgust worry
    Note that pictures of this sort produce certain structures:
    She feels..., He is..., She finds it..., She seems..., She's absolutely..., He's quite..., He looks a bit..., She is ...-ing etc.
  2. less obvious visuals
    People also respond well to pictures of things and situations which evince certain emotions.  Again, the web is a good source.  Here are some:
    money climbing woodland
    storm puppy spider
    snake eye waiting

    Note 1:
    that people's reactions will vary so the emotions they record will differ.  This is fertile ground for the discussion of why certain things evince certain reactions.
    Note 2:
    These sorts of pictures (of the objects of our reactions) evince different structures such as:
    It disturbs..., It attracts..., It horrifies..., It surprises..., They are..., She seems..., It appears..., She's really..., It makes me feel... etc.
    Note 3:
    Pictures like these work well if the learners are allowed to use their imaginations and insert themselves into the scene.  They can then produce language along the lines of If I looked under the bed and saw that I'd probably be very ... .  How would you feel if ...?  When I take a walk somewhere beautiful, it always makes me feel ... etc.
  3. Inserting emotions into relating events
    One of the guides in this section concerns relating experiences.  It is a short step from there to getting people to enliven their stories with a description of the emotions of the participants.  For example, we can enliven this:

    I took the tube to work this morning.  When I got on the train it was, as usual very crowded and hot.  Half-way to Euston, the train stopped for a long time.  The driver told us that this was because of a fire at the station.  After over an hour the train moved forward and we all got out at Euston.

    by doing this:

    I took the tube to work this morning dreading, as usual, the morning rush hour.  When I got on the train it was, as usual very crowded and hot.  Everybody seemed irritable and I felt a bit claustrophobic.  Half-way to Euston, the train stopped for a long time.  Lots of people looked a bit irritated and some were clearly very angry.  A few people also looked a little frightened and I was a bit scared, too.  To my horror, the driver told us that this was because of a fire at the station.  After over an hour, with my fear getting worse, the train moved forward and we all got out at Euston.  I was really thankful and you can imagine my relief!

    This practises both the language of emotions and the art of story telling (narration, if you prefer).

Related guides
word formation expressing emotion often requires people to form adjectives and nouns from verbs
adjectives for the guide to an obviously related area
copular verbs and complements for the guide how subject and attribute are linked in English
expressing liking and disliking for a guide to how this related function is realised in English

Shaver, P, Schwartz, J, Kirson, D, & O'Connor, C, 1987, Emotion knowledge: further exploration of a prototype approach. Journal of personality and social psychology, 52(6), 1061