'Bad' or 'Badly'?

“I feel bad.” “I feel badly.” Which is it?

Marcia Riefer Johnston, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #586

The Sentence Mechanics Behind ‘I Feel Bad’

As an adjective, “bad” can’t modify “feel.” An adjective has one job: to modify a noun. In fact, that’s exactly what “bad” does in the sentence “I feel bad.” It modifies the subject: “I.” 

feed bad and feel badly

In the sentence “I feel bad,” “bad” is what’s called a subject complement. The subject (“I”) and its complement (“bad”) are grammatically linked, identified with each other like two sides of an equation. What links them, like an equal sign, is the verb “feel.” 

In other words, “feel,” here, is what’s called a linking verb. 

What’s so special about linking verbs? They are grammatical passthroughs. A linking verb, also known as a copula, may connect a modifier (like “bad”) to another word (like “I”). 

So no, “feel”—as a linking verb—does not cry out for “badly.”

Wait, ‘Feel’ Is a Linking Verb?

You might not think of “feel” as a linking verb. In fact, the verb “feel” has a chameleon-like nature: It can function as either a linking verb or an action verb.

Typically, English students learn to recognize linking verbs by looking for “be”-verbs (“is,” “am,” “was,” “were,” “are,” “have been being,” and so on) for the excellent reason that “be”-verbs often act as linking verbs. Other verbs sometimes act as linking verbs, too (including “feel,” “grow” “appear,” “become,” “seem,” “look,” “prove,” “remain,” “smell,” “sound,” “taste,” “turn,” “stay,” and “get”).

Take “grow.” It’s a linking verb in “The turnips grow rancid.” It’s an action verb in “The turnips grow rapidly.”

Now let’s look at “feel” in a mix of roles: 

  • “The bricks feel smooth.” Here, “feel” is a linking verb because “smooth” describes the bricks.
  • “The neighbors feel the earthquake.” Here, “feel” is an action verb because it’s what the neighbors are doing.
  • “The concierge feels ecstatic.” Here, “feels” is a linking verb because “ecstatic” describes the concierge.
  • “The horse feels its way along the path.” Here, “feels” is an action verb because it’s what the horse is doing.


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