The verb "smell" is a linking verb and is often followed by an adjective.

For example, "It smells bad".

Also, adjectives can also be formed from verbs by adding "ing" or "ed".

For example, "boring/bored", "tiring/tired", "exciting/excited", etc.

Do we have adjectives "burning/burnt"?

Is it correct to say "something smells burning in the kitchen" or even "something smells burnt in the kitchen"?

Some suggests "something smells like burning in the kitchen".


Something smells burning in the kitchen

is not idiomatic in American English.

The problem is that "smell" is not just a linking verb. It is also a transitive verb.

I smell smoke in the kitchen

does not mean that my odor changes when I enter the kitchen. As Samuel Johnson once said when a lady told him that he smelled, "No, madame, you smell; I stink."

It is true that we can use participles as adjectives, but it is also true that we can use present participles as nouns.

Something smelled burning"

creates ambiguity because it is not clear whether something (a dog for example) sensed the odor of some other thing being burned or something is emitting such an odor.

Something smells as though it is burning

is perfectly clear that "smell" is not being used transitively.

If we change to a perfect participle, which cannot typically be used as a noun, the ambiguity disappears, and the abbreviated form becomes idiomatic.

Something smelled burnt.

Because "burnt" is not a noun, it is clear that "smell" is not transitive.

  • No different in British English. – Colin Fine Sep 28 '20 at 16:58
  • My ignorance of British English.encourages me to be cautious on that topic, but thank you for the information. – Jeff Morrow Sep 28 '20 at 17:48

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