The Grammarphobia Blog

When it’s good to feel bad

Q: I always use “bad,” not “badly,” when I feel bad about someone or something. But I hear other people (my son, for instance) use “badly.” I think you said recently on WNYC that one could feel “bad” or “badly,” depending on the meaning. Please explain.

A: “Feel” (meaning to sense rather than to touch) is a linking verb, along with “be,” “appear,” “become,” “grow,” “look,” “remain,” “seem,” “smell,” “sound,” and “taste.” Linking verbs are modified by adjectives (like “bad”) rather than adverbs (“badly”).

I usually explain the use of linking verbs when the “good/well” or “bad/badly” debate comes up on the air, but for some reason I didn’t get into it this time.

A linking verb differs from other verbs in that it conveys a state or condition, rather than an activity.

It’s called a linking verb (or copula) because it merely links (or couples) the subject with the complement, as in “He seems tired.”

In other words, the complement is an adjective rather than an adverb; in effect, it modifies the subject rather than the verb.

If you use “feel” to mean touch, however, then it’s NOT a linking verb, and it would take an adverb (“His fingertips are numb from the cold, so he feels badly”).

Many listeners emailed me their long-ago memorized lists of the 11 linking verbs. Never underestimate the power of rote learning! I’m a big believer in it.

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