Feel bad vs. feel badly



I know that "I feel bad" is an appropriate construction. However, I am never able to explain this to my friends and family, most of whom "feel badly" about unfortunate situations. What can I tell them?



Bad is an adjective, to be used after forms of the verb be and other linking verbs, such as become, seem, and appear, and feel—when feel acts as a linking verb. Linking verbs serve to connect a descriptive word, an adjective, to its subject:


I was so happy, knowing that my work was appreciated.


I felt very happy, knowing that my work was appreciated.


I felt very bad, realizing that nobody appreciated my work.

Badly is an adverb, used to modify action verbs:


Leon usually plays golf superbly, but today he played very badly.


Sam dances very badly

A problem arises with verbs and sometimes that function sometimes as linking verbs and sometimes as action verbs. Look is one of them, as in these sentences:


Harriet looks sad today. She probably got bad news about her sister.


Harriet looked sadly at the sick puppy, and wished that she could help him, but knowing that she couldn't.

In sentence (f), looks is a linking verb. It has a meaning similar to be. It is close in meaning to "Harriet is sad today." An adjective—sad, in this case—completes the sentence correctly.

In contrast, in sentence (g), looked is an action verb; the verb looked is something that Harriet actually did. It needs an adverb—sadly, in this case—to describe it.

Here is another set of sentences, in which one verb is used in two different senses. In (h) below, feel is a linking verb, but in (i), feel is an action verb:


I feel bad today. I feel very sad. I received disturbing news about my best friend.


I felt the material slowly and carefully; it was exceptional silk and I wanted to enjoy the sensual experience.

Sentence (h) has the same structure as sentence (h)—both look and feel act as linking verbs and need adjectives to complete them. In sentence (f), Harriet looks sad, and appears to be sad. In sentence (h), I feel bad, as I would feel sad, or mad, or angry, or happy, or ...(substitute any other adjective).

In contrast, sentence (i)—like sentence (g) before it—contains as an action verb. Feel as an action verb commonly takes an object, and needs an adverb to describe it.

The MLA's Line by Line (Claire Kehrwald Cook. Houghton Mifflin, 1985) makes this distinction:

If you regret something—say, an accident in which someone was hurt badly—you may say that you feel bad about it. ...When feel means "to be conscious of" or "to give a sensation of," it leads to an adjective that modifies the subject:

We feel responsible.
The air feels cool.

If feel means "to touch" or "to believe," an adverb is appropriate to describe the action of the verb:

She carefully felt her way down the dark hall.
I felt strongly that he should resign.

The Grammar Exchange will feel happy if this information enlightens your friends and family. On the other hand, we may have given Too Much Information, and we'd feel pretty bad if indeed we have confused your friends and family further...

(To read about "Feel good or feel well?," click here.)

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