Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 41: Working Hard... or Hardly Working?

"I feel bad."
"I feel badly."

Which is correct?

Today we discuss this common pitfall when writing or speaking, and we've brought in a special guest to help us understand it.

Catherine Winter is an editor for the American RadioWorks documentary unit at American Public Media. She also holds the distinct honor of having been called in to settle a heated debate in the Minnesota Public Radio newsroom over "I feel bad" versus "I feel badly."

"If you're going to use the phrase at all," Winter says, "I would suggest using 'I feel bad.'"

To understand the difference, Winter says one must revisit "those old friends" from grammar school, the adjective and the adverb. As a quick refresher, Winter explains that an adjective is a word that describes a noun. She gives the examples of

a blue house
a hopeless situation
the ugly stepsister.

"In those cases," Winter says, "you've got blue and hopeless and ugly and those are the adjectives."

Winter defines an adverb as a word that is used to describe a verb. She gives these examples:

the boy ran fast
she slept deeply
he spoke hopelessly

The words fast, deeply and hopelessly are the adverbs.

Winter points out that in the sentence, "I feel badly," the speaker is using the adverb badly to describe the verb feel. "It means you're saying that you lack sensory ability," Winter says, "like maybe if your hands were numb you might say, 'I feel badly.' But if you want to say that you are regretful or sad, then you need to say 'I feel bad.'"

Nevertheless, there are many people who think "I feel badly" is correct. Winter offers two possible explanations for this confusion.

First, she thinks many people got it drilled into them in grammar school that they must use an adverb after a verb. "In many instances that's correct," Winter explains, "but we have this set of verbs that some authorities would call linking verbs that tend to refer to perception. So you wouldn't say 'I feel badly' any more than you would say, 'This tastes bitterly.' You have these verbs of perception like seems or thinks or feels or appears that take an adjective, not an adverb. I think a huge part of the confusion arises there."

The second source of confusion has to do with parallel structures. "The opposite of well is badly," Winter says. "If I do something well, I might do something badly. But well is also an adjective: you can feel well or you can say all is well, and the opposite of that is bad, not badly. So people tend to get confused."

According to Winter, a big reason people say "I feel badly" is because they're simply trying really hard to be right. "This is actually an example of a fascinating phenomenon called hypercorrection," she says. "It's where if somebody corrects you for an error in one circumstance, you then over-generalize and apply that correction where it doesn't actually belong."

Winter says we see this most often with pronouns: "People will say, 'He gave the pictures to Jenny and I' when it really ought to be 'Jenny and me.'"

Winter explains that at some point in that person's life, it's likely he or she said, "Jenny and me are going to the store." Someone else, likely a parent or a teacher, corrected that person, saying, "Jenny and I." This creates a false belief that whenever that circumstance arises, it's imperative to use I instead of me.

[Note: For more discussion about I versus me, listen to Grammar Grater Episode 6: I Gotta Be Me.]

"You see it in other circumstances, too," Winter says. "People will say 'seldomly' because they think all adverbs have to have -ly in them."

We asked Winter if saying "I feel badly" rather than "I feel bad" is a serious error.

"I think 'I feel badly' is arguably a more serious error than many things people call errors," Winter says. "There really is no circumstance in which that's the appropriate language to use."

She compares language choices to one's clothing choices, describing how sometimes it's appropriate to wear a t-shirt and at other times it's better to wear a tie. She extends this to speech by saying in some circumstances, it's all right to say "gonna" but and in others one ought to say "going to."

"But there is no circumstance in which it's all right to say 'I feel badly'," Winter says. "By analogy, that's sort of like not just neglecting to wear a tie—but wearing a tie on your foot."

Finally, we asked Winter if there was anything speakers and writers can do to avoid this error. "You are going to run into people who think you're wrong when you say 'I feel bad' even though I'm here to tell you you're not, you're right," she advises. "So it might be the best thing to just write around it and say, 'I regret that' or 'That made me unhappy' or 'I feel hopeless' or something like that and just avoid having anybody think you're wrong."

Special thanks to The Morning Show's Jim Ed Poole for providing the voice of Clancy the Dog.

Music from this Episode: "I Want Someone Badly" by Shudder to Think, featuring Jeff Buckley; "I Got You (I Feel Good)" by James Brown.

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