Linda smells bad!

Patricia smells the flower.

When you say the first sentence, the one who sniffs the scent would be the others than Linda herself. On the other hand, on second phrase, the one who is sniffing the flower is obviously Patricia.

Then here I'm curious that when natives hear the speakers say up until the moment right after the smells,

Linda smells....

Patricia smells....

how would they think which is the one who's sniffing right now? Do natives think the verbs in "smells bad" and "smells the flower" two different things?

3 Answers 3


Many verbs in English are both transitive (meaning they take an object) and intransitive. For example:

He stopped the car (transitive)

He stopped on the corner (intransitive)

In a similar way, "smell" has two different meanings depending on whether you add an object:

He smells the flower (transitive) = "he senses the aroma of the flower"

He smells like bacon (intransitive) = "he emits an odor of bacon"

Of course these can be confused, often for humorous effect. such as in this old "stinker" of a joke:

A: "My dog has no nose."
B: "How does it smell?"
A: "Awful!"


"Mr. Johnson, you smell!" "No madam, you smell, I stink." -- Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

I cannot give a more precise attribution, but I think that this summarises a potential distinction between two words that is often, even usually, lost in their common use.

A similar example is the very common use of 'infer' to mean 'imply', or "stress" (doing something) to mean "strain"(feeling something).

  • "My nose is running and my feet smell"
    – Andrew
    Dec 15, 2018 at 0:02

We should recognize them based on sentences.

some smell verb meanings:

(past tense and past participle smelled especially American English or smelt /smelt/ British English)

1) notice a smell [transitive not in progressive] to notice or recognize a particular smell:

▪ I can smell burning.

▪ Can you smell something?

2) have a smell [linking verb] to have a particular smell (smell adj)

▪ The stew smelled delicious.

▪ Mm! Something smells good!

smell like

▪ It smells like rotten eggs.

smell of (British English)

▪ My clothes smelt of smoke.

sweet-smelling/foul-smelling etc

▪ sweet-smelling flowers

3) have a bad smell [intransitive not in progressive] to have an unpleasant smell (synonym -> stink):

▪ Your feet smell!

▪ The room smelled to high heaven (=had a very bad smell).

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .