Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Here is another one of those situations involving words that don’t normally come up every day. And even when they do, they are much more commonly spoken than they are written, leading to a very common misinterpretation and spelling mistake. This is the case if you want to talk about a man’s grisly (not grizzly) beard, for instance.

And if it’s been far too long since you had lunch and your stomach is starting to rumble and squeeze in anticipation of dinner, you may be suffering from hunger pangs. Or are they hunger pains?

Intuitively, hunger pains sounds like it would make the most logical sense. There you are, experiencing pain in your abdominal region and this pain is brought on because you are hungry. Hence, it would follow that you are feeling hunger pains, right? Well, not exactly.

While that turn of phrase may come up in casual speech, “hunger pains” is not technically correct. The term you want to use is hunger pangs, though you’ll still want to restrict its use to more informal settings. Medically speaking, “hunger pangs” refer to the contractions of an empty stomach or the intestines when you are feeling hungry.

From what I can gather — and I’m certainly no medical or anatomy expert — these abdominal contractions are similar to what happens when your body processes the food that you eat. The difference is that your stomach is empty, so the experience is more painful. Hunger pangs can last for 30 to 45 minutes with each individual contraction lasting about 30 seconds. Curiously, hunger pangs are not necessarily representative of true hunger. Instead, they’re causing by the inner lining of your stomach rubbing up against itself.

Your restless, empty stomach may be causing you some pain and discomfort, but what you’re experiencing are hunger pangs and not hunger pains. Some resources may indicate that the terms are both acceptable and can be used interchangeably, so it’s really a matter of tolerance on your end. If you want to stick with the official albeit informal term, use pangs.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m literally dying to have some dinner.