Bad vs. Badly

Do you, I, and every other English speaker in the world feel bad or badly? It depends on the circumstances. If we feel bad, we either 1) feel sick or morose; 2) feel empathy, concern, or sorrow for a person or in the wake of a tragedy; or 3) feel regret for a not-so-great act of our own. If we feel badly (an adverb), the nerve endings in our fingers aren’t working as well as they should when we touch anything, be it an apple or an appliance or an Appaloosa.

We Bad?

Grammatically, feel is a linking verb –  a form of the intransitive verb. (Other examples in the multitude of linking verbs include is, remain, grow, and taste.) And here’s a brief refresher course on how transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs compare:*

  • Transitive verbs  These verbs have a direct object – e.g. “Skip moved the chair in the living room.” They act on something, the reason they are also called active (or action) verbs.
  • Intransitive verbs  These inactive verbs have no direct object, nor can they. Think about it: Are verbs like sit, arrive, succeed, and cough able to do anything to something else, as Skip did to his chair? (A cough giving a cold to a bystander doesn’t count.)
  • Linking verbs  These are more passive than intransitive verbs. A linking verb connects two words in a way the sentence in which Skip moves (verb) a chair (noun/direct object) does not: I am a freshman; his beard looks unkempt; her mother seems nice.

I feel badly is one of those misusages we should pay no mind. To most people, this phrasing of the comment just sounds proper (linking verb alert!), which classes it as a bit of a genteelism** — and an unwitting one, at that. Only the strictest of English teachers who inadvertently voice the term should say to themselves, “My bad.”

*In her inimitable style, author Patricia T. O’Connor boils transitive vs. intransitive down to its essence in the glossary of  Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English: “Verbs are called transitive when they need an object to make sense (Henry raises dahlias) and intransitive when they make sense without one (Flowers die.)”

**For more on genteelisms, see Don’t Kill Death!

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