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.
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.
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’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.
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.