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Why It's 'I Feel Bad' and Not 'I Feel Badly'

Here's is another grammar lesson from my weekly column. This ran the week of Aug. 12, 2007. Thanks to Red Room member Dennis Shay for the inspiration (and for helping me think of stuff to post even on days when I'm too busy to come up with something original)!

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A Word, Please

By June Casagrande

What if I told you that, in just a few short sentences, I could teach you something about grammar that would set you head and shoulders above a large portion of the population? Why, you'd want to send me money, right? And I'd want to let you. So, without further ado, here it is.

It's not "I feel badly." It's "I feel bad."

Actually, there are instances in which you'd want to use "I feel badly." But those are so rare that you can go a whole lifetime without ever needing the term. If you're saying you feel guilty, sorry for someone, remorseful or anything like that, the grammatically correct term is "I feel bad."

But now, what if I told you that, on some level, you knew that already -- that I'm just pointing out a rule that every native English speaker gets right in many other situations, even if they don't know they know it. Why, you'd want to tear up the check you'd just made out to me and not pay me anything at all, wouldn't you? That's why those of you with your checkbooks already out should stop reading here. For the rest of you, here's the deal.

How often do you say, "He seems happily" or "The dog appears hungrily" or "His cooking tastes terribly"? Never, right? You say instead "He seems happy," "The dog appears hungry" and "His cooking tastes terrible." That's because you already grasp the concept we're talking about -- a concept called "linking verbs."

"Linking verbs," also called "copular verbs," are the best-kept secret that everybody knows. And they're something we're more likely to get right if we don't think about them. When we just blurt out our remorse, we're more likely to say "I feel bad" than if we're carefully choosing our words and trying to put in action those fifth-grade lessons about adverbs.

Adverbs, we're all taught, modify verbs. They do lots of other stuff, too, but we don't hear as much about that. We just know that if we're modifying an action -- like reading -- we need an adverb. "She reads rapidly."

The thing a lot fewer of us are taught is that this whole adverbs-modify-verbs lesson doesn't apply when it comes to linking verbs.

Linking verbs usually refer to states of being or senses. And the rule governing linking verbs is that they take adjectives -- not adverbs -- as their complements.

Take the single most common linking verb, "to be," and conjugate it with "I" to get "I am." You know already that use an adjective, "I am happy," and not an adverb, "I am happily." And with "to be" examples, the matter almost explains itself. We're not really modifying the verb -- the action of being. We're really reflecting back on the subject of the sentence -- I -- which is a noun. And nouns, we know, are modified by adjectives.

Look again at "The dog appears hungry." In this case, we're focused more on the dog than on what he's doing. So we want a word that modifies the noun "dog." We want an adjective.

Now consider a similar sentence, "The dog appears suddenly." Why does that take an adverb, "suddenly"? Because in this case, we really are describing the action.

You see, most linking verbs aren't exclusively linking verbs. They can be either linking or regular. That's why, if you already put your check in the mail, you probably feel bad. But if you're still rummaging around in your purse with both hands, groping blindly to find a checkbook you're sure is in there somewhere, you feel badly.

-- June Casagrande is author of "Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies." She can be reached at word@grammarsnobs.com.