“I feel bad.” “I feel badly.” Which is it?
How to Spot a Linking Verb: The Quick and Dirty Tip
How do you know whether a verb is acting as a linking verb? (That, it turns out, is the question behind this post’s question of whether to say “I feel bad” or “I feel badly.”)
If you’re not sure how to spot a linking verb, here’s a Quick and Dirty Tip: Swap in a “be”-verb. If the resulting statement works—which is to say, if you’re looking at a statement about the subject’s state—you have a linking verb on your hands. Don’t follow that verb with an adverb, such as “badly.” Ix-nay on the “ly” words. Stick with adjectives.
Here are some examples:
Example 1—“The turnips grow rancid.”
Think, “The turnips are rancid.” This works as a statement—however improbable—about the turnips’ state. So you know that, in this case, “grow” is a linking verb. Keep the adjective (“rancid”).
Example 2— “The turnips grow rapidly.”
Think, “The turnips are rapidly.” This statement makes no sense. So you know that, in this case, “grow” is not a linking verb. It’s an action verb. Keep the adverb (“rapidly”).
Example 3—“I feel bad.”
Think, “I am bad.” This works—not because we’re talking about a bad person but because “I am bad” is a statement about the subject’s state. So you know that, in this case, “feel” is a linking verb. Keep the adjective (“bad”).
Example 4—“I feel badly.”
Think, “I am badly.” This statement makes no sense. So you know that, in this case, “feel” is not a linking verb. It’s an action verb. Keep the adverb (“badly”) … if you want to alert people to, say, your underabundance of nerve endings—your inability to feel. Otherwise, if it’s your emotional or physical state you want to convey, use “feel” as linking verb. Lose the “ly.” Let the world know, with confidence, that you feel bad.
The Common Use of ‘Feel Badly’ for ‘Feel Bad’
Do people say “feel badly” for “feel bad” often enough that this phrase has become generally acceptable? Not so far—at least not in print—says grammarian and language enthusiast Bryan Garner, who tracks changes in English usage. He says that “most professional writers know this point of usage.” According to his research, in modern print sources, “feel bad” outnumbers “feel badly” by a 9:1 ratio (1), and “felt bad” outnumbers “felt badly” by a 6:1 ratio. (2)
Garner places both uses (“feel badly” for “feel bad” and “felt bad” for “felt badly”) at Stage 2 in his five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning that this usage has spread “to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.” (3)
What About ‘I Feel Well’?
As a final defense of “I feel badly,” you might point to the common use of the phrase “I feel well” to mean “I feel healthy.” Since “well” (usually an adverb) is widely accepted after “feel,” why not “badly”?
Consider these two points:
- While “feel well” is widely used, “feel good” works perfectly well to describe a state of health.
- If your reason for saying “feel well” is that “feel” requires an adverb, you’re hypercorrecting. “Feel” is a linking verb here. “Well” does not modify “feel.” “Well” is a complement of the subject, “I.” In this case, “well” functions as an adjective.
Maybe someday “feel badly” will become as widely accepted as “feel well,” but we’re not there yet.
In summary, learn to spot linking verbs by checking to see if you can swap in a “be”-verb, such as “is” or “am.” When in doubt, avoid following linking verbs with adverbs. For example, say “I feel bad,” not “I feel badly.” Otherwise, your word-savvy friends will feel unhappily.
That segment was written by Marcia Riefer Johnston, author of “Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build From Them).” Marcia blogs at Writing.Rocks.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
(1) Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern English Usage, fourth edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 382.
(2) Garner, p. 91.
(3) Garner, p. xxxi.