Letter: English language claims another victim
I felt bad when I read that Superintendent Tim Carter felt “badly” about a recent oversight he made in Dr. Jane Whitmire’s biography. Logically the structure of the sentence, “Now I feel badly.” should work. “Badly” is an adverb modifying the verb “feel”, right? Yes, but no.
When it comes to languages, logic does not always work. To “feel badly” means to state that there is a problem with one’s sense of touch. This would be a rare condition, albeit possible.
To “feel bad” means that one has regrets or feels sadness. So could one say, “I feel sadly” ? No. What about feeling peacefully, happily, hopefully, doubtfully. Also, no. Why not?
The answer lies in a special group of verbs, called linking verbs. Some verbs are always linking verbs, such as all forms of the verb “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, been etc.), the verbs “seem”,”become”and “get” (when it means to become). One gets mad, not madly, although one can be madly in love, but that is another matter altogether!
Several verbs sometimes function as linking verbs: appear, feel, grow, look, prove, remain, smell, sound, taste and turn, for example. The cheese smells bad, not badly. One rule of thumb is that, if you can substitute “am, is or are” in place of the verb, it is likely a linking verb. “I feel sad” (I am sad).
Linking verbs are followed by a word that describes the subject. In other words, one must use an adjective, not an adverb (many of which end in “ly”. “ She looks comfortable (not comfortably).” However, one can look sickly, because sickly is an adjective. So is sick.
Bottom line: While one can sing, cook, drive or spell badly, one will be, seem, feel etc. bad. NEVER BADLY.
Here is an interesting wrinkle: One can feel both good and well. Each has its own meaning. “ I feel good.” (positive sense of well being). “I feel well.” (I am not sick). So, how are you doing? “I’m doing well. (All is okay). What are you doing? “I’m doing good.” (helping other folks out).
Well and good are interesting, because well can be both and adjective and an adverb. Both well and good can also be nouns. Their meanings depend on how they are used.
The English language gives us a wealth of ways to express our thoughts, feelings and ideas, but it can claim victims also. Few are immune to this danger. So, why does it matter?
If your intent is to say what you mean and mean what you say, using the right words can make all the difference. While a chicken can lay in a bed (but would you want it to?), a person could lie in the same bed (after the eggs are removed, of course). However, the past tense of lie is lay. “He was lazy and lay in bed all day.” If chickens laid in bed all day, it would be time for an omelet.
We often take our ability to use languages for granted, and can get a little careless. I urge you to do good and use the language well. Then you will not have to feel bad about becoming a victim of what you say.
English and German teacher, ret.
Lifelong member of the Grammar Police