"Bad" Versus "Badly"

Find out whether we side with Donald Trump or Cyndi Lauper.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #219

Today's topic is “bad” versus “badly,” and to make it fun we have a celebrity smack down.

On this week's Celebrity Apprentice, Donald Trump corrected Cyndi Lauper. Here's a clip.

[audio clip]

Not only is Donald Trump not very nice, but he's also wrong. “I feel bad,” is perfectly acceptable. In fact, it's the best way to say it. Poor Cyndi Lauper.

Although Donald should feel bad about being a big ol' meanie, he shouldn't feel too bad about confusing “bad” and “badly” because it's a common error.

The short answer is that it is correct to say you feel bad when you are expressing an emotion.

Action Verbs

The reason it's easy to be confused is that “feel” can be a linking verb or an action verb. Action verbs are easy to understand. They describe actions. If I reach out and touch your cashmere sweater to see how soft it is, I've taken an action. I am feeling your sweater.

Linking Verbs

Linking verbs are more subtle. They describe emotions or states of being. If I am regretful about something and I want to describe my feelings, I'm describing my state of mind, not an action.

The verb “to be” is the linking verb most people know about. When you say “I am bad,” you're describing your state. You can think of linking verbs as linking a subject to its state. Forms of “to be” include “is,” “am,” “was,” “were,” and “are.”

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Verbs That Go Both Ways

Verbs that describe senses such as “feel,” “smell,” and “taste” can be linking verbs or action verbs, and to know which words modify them, you have to know the difference. That's because you use adverbs to describe action verbs, and adjectives to describe linking verbs.

If I am having trouble getting my fingers to your sweater, I am feeling badly. “Badly” is the adverb that describes how I'm doing with the feeling action.

If Cyndi Lauper is anxious about naming the person Donald Trump should fire, she feels bad. “Bad” is the adjective that describes the state of her emotions.

The Quick and Dirty Tip

Can you replace “feel” with “am”? If so, choose the adjective and write “I feel bad.”

Fortunately, there's a quick and dirty tip to help you figure out whether you're dealing with an action verb or a linking verb if Donald Trump ever calls you out on national TV.

Remember that I said the verb “to be” is a linking verb? The trick is to use it to test your sentence to see if you can replace the verb in question with a form of “to be,” such as “is” or “was.” If you can, you're dealing with a linking verb. If you can't, you're dealing with an action verb.

In Cyndi's sentence, you can replace “feel” with “am.” “I feel bad” becomes “I am bad.” Since you can make the verb swap, you know that “feel” is a linking verb in that sentence and is describing her state. “Bad” is an adjective, and linking verbs link adjectives back to the subject they are describing. 

But in Donald's sentence, you can't replace “feel” with “am.” “I feel badly” becomes “I am badly,” which doesn't make any sense. Since you can't make the swap, you know that “feel” is an action verb in that sentence; it's describing an action. It means there's a problem with the action of feeling, but that isn't what Cyndi meant.

A Smelly Problem

Let's do one more example with the word “smell,” which is another verb that can be a linking verb or an action verb.

You can exist in a state of being smelly, or you can actively smell something—a luscious chocolate or a horrible old sock.

If you want to describe your state, then “smell” is a linking verb. You could write “That smells bad.” Notice again how you can replace the linking verb with “is” and the sentence still works. “That smells bad” becomes “That is bad.”

But if you want to describe the action of smelling, “smell” is an action verb. Maybe you have an old dog who can't smell anymore and doesn't find treats you hide for him. You could explain to a friend by saying “He smells badly.” Notice how that sentence doesn't work if you replace “smells” with “is.” You get “He is badly,” which doesn't make sense, so it confirms that you aren't dealing with a linking verb, so the adverb “badly” is the right choice.


Linking verbs can be replaced with forms of “to be” and they link adjectives to the subject. Action verbs can't be replaced with forms of “to be,” and you modify them with adverbs.

Fear no real estate mogul giving grammar rebukes.

Today's episode is sponsored by—me! My book The Grammar Devotional makes a great graduation gift whether graduates are going on to college or heading right into the workforce.

Thanks to Kristin Thiel for sending me the link to the clip from Celebrity Apprentice that I used at the beginning of this show.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.