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In the age of Twitter and emoticons, grammarians wage lonely rear-guard battles.  Some watch for confusion of “less” and “fewer,” offering unwelcome advice at the express check-out.  Others labor diligently to catch and gently to correct the stray split infinitive.  Those of a hypothetical mindset safeguard the subjunctive tense.  My own interest is to curb the bad habit of “I feel badly.”

“I feel so badly,” a friend pleaded after forgetting my birthday.  “No need to feel bad,” I replied and refrained from correcting her grammar.  Bitter experience has shown that the “I feel badly” crowd bristles against grammatical advice.  There is an element of pride, for the person who “feels badly” is usually an intellectual sort.  Also, to be fair, anyone who truly does feel bad won’t want to hear that her feelings are grammatically unsound.  And so, rather than annoy well-meaning friends, I’ll simply state my grievance here.

warriners

My high school grammar book.

I mainly hear “I feel badly” among the well-educated.  Teachers, doctors, lawyers, and professionals, people who know their way around the five-paragraph essay, use “I feel badly” to emphasize their sincere, sophisticated lament.  The error is particularly noxious because it implies that the rest of us—the unwashed masses who simply “feel bad”—must lack the emotional and grammatical depth required to “feel badly.”

“I feel badly” is bad grammar.  The error occurs because “to feel” can act as an action verb or a linking verb.  An action verb accepts an adverb:

The dog eats quickly.

“Quickly” tells how the dog “eats.”  Now consider a linking verb:

The dog looks lazy.

The dog doesn’t look at anything; the sentence has no action.  The verb merely links the adjective “lazy” to the subject “dog.”  If we substitute an adverb, “looks” becomes an action verb, and the meaning changes:

The dog looks lazily.

A linking verb describes its subject without expressing action.  Here’s another example:

The soup tastes bitter.

The linking verb connects “bitter” to “soup.”  When we insert the adverb “bitterly,” the sentence attempts to express action, yielding an obvious error:

The soup tastes bitterly.

And now we return to the source of this great strife, “I feel badly.”  The speaker wants to describe an emotional state, one of feeling regret.  But the adverb “badly” forces the sentence to convey the action of feeling, creating a very different meaning.  To use the adverb correctly, we could discuss the physical act of feeling an object:

Mary’s hands are numb and she can barely feel her fingers.  Mary feels badly.

coldhands

Mary’s cold hands feel badly.

Cold weather has impaired Mary’s sense of touch.  She fumbles putting on her bracelet because she feels badly.  Alternatively, we could describe Mr. Spock’s difficulty in comprehending human emotion:

Spock has trouble feeling emotion.  He feels badly.

Spock

Mr. Spock feels badly.

Spock’s coldly logical mind struggles to process feelings.  He often misunderstands human reactions because he is bad at feeling; he feels badly.  As these examples show, the adverb “badly” is the key to our trouble.  It converts “feel” into an action verb and hijacks the entire sentence.  To express emotional regret or sorrow, we need a simple linking verb and adjective:

Mary’s dog died.  Mary feels bad.

dog

The verb links “bad” to “Mary,” correctly conveying her sorrow.  Mary should at least feel glad (but not “feel gladly”) about her good grammar.

In the end, a basic question remains.  Whether someone “feels badly” or “feels bad,” does it matter?  Grammar has no moral implications, and many brilliant writers practice sloppy grammar.  A fellow teacher once cautioned me against correcting misspellings in student essays.  “Every time you circle a misspelled word, you stop the student from using three new words.”  The same caution applies to grammar.  If we entangle ourselves with rules, the language becomes anemic and sterile.

I found a useful perspective at the website for the National Council of Teachers of English: grammar “helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise.”  This view invokes a sort of craftsmanship.  Like the work of a master carpenter, “clear and interesting and precise” language has a sturdy propriety.  Instead of an onerous rule book, grammar is a tool for strong, clean expression.  If we appreciate the artistry of musicians, painters, and chefs, we can also admire skillful use of grammar.  Thus, my dismay over “I feel badly” is really a complaint against shoddy workmanship.  I plant my flag against this bad habit.  And I firmly believe that as people realize their mistake, they’ll feel quite badly about it all.

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6 thoughts on “The Bad Habit of Feeling Badly.

  1. Always a pet peeve of mine. I also can’t stand the “he don’t, she don’t…” Fill in the blank. Though I did find it interesting about not correcting some of these mistakes as it may stifle literary expression. That may be true in the written form but in the spoken form it just sounds akward and lazy… Or should I say lazily. See my point?

  2. I have recently been corrected for saying to a friend that I felt bad. “Oh, I don’t want you to embarrass yourself.” she said. “That’s terrible grammar! You mean to say that you “feel badly!” I was too discouraged and cowardly to set her straight, so now I have to remember to use the incorrect usage when I’m with her. She was also appalled when I told her that a mutual acquaintance had died. “No, no! That’s so coarse! He ‘passed away’ is far more polite,” she instructed me. Now that I think about it maybe this particular friendship has run its course.

  3. Interesting and unsurprising that you hear this mistake more often from educated folks. They’re the ones by far the most likely to be guilty of hyperurbanisms — grammatical mistakes made in a misguided attempt to be correct. My own pet peeve, inherited from my father, is “between you and I” and its ilk.

    I have read that, if you consider any local dialect its own language, with its own grammar, the less educated speakers are far less likely to break the rules of their grammar than are their so-called betters. That is, if you take a redneck who speaks in double negatives, he’ll never not use a double negative while using that language — although he’s quite likely to slip into a different, more “correct” dialect when speaking with an authority figure. It’s a testament to the fact that almost every native speaker learns the grammar and syntax of her language without problem or apparent effort. But then you throw a little education into the mix, and people become self-conscious and start making errors because they misapply rules they’ve learned: Don’t say her and me, say she and I. Descriptive words that come after a verb should end in -ly.

    It’s the sort of pedantic nonsense up with which we shouldn’t put.

  4. The linguistic term of art is ‘hypercorrectness,’ meaning making errors by trying too hard not to make one. I don’t want to start a war here, but for most speakers of American English, ‘either’ pronounced ‘eye-ther’ was an instance of hypercorrectness (like ‘of-ten,’ sounding the ‘t,’ for ‘often’) until it started to become naturalized among children about 15 years ago.

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