You Feel Bad--You Don't Feel Badly, Unless Your Hands Are Damaged!

by Tina Blue
August 11, 2000


    ~I feel sad. (not I feel sadly.)
    ~She feels pretty. (not She feels prettily.)
    ~He feels hopeless. (not He feels hopelessly.)
    ~They feel lighthearted. (not They feel lightheartedly.)
    ~This velvet feels soft. (not  This velvet feels softly.)

These examples should provide evidence sufficient to demonstrate why the proper form is "I feel bad," not "I feel badly." For the grammatical explanation of why you need the adjective rather than the adverb after "feel," keep reading.

Many people are confused about whether to say "I feel bad" or "I feel badly." Most people, even some English teachers I know, will erroneously choose "badly" because it sounds fancier, and probably also according to the principle that if it seems unnatural, it must be more correct. (Oh, come on--you know you sometimes assume that!) But the correct form is actually "I feel bad."

There are two types of sentences in English: (1) Someone or something does something, and (2) Someone or something is or seems to be something. The verb in the first type of sentence is what we call an action verb. The verb in the second type of sentence is what we call a linking verb. (You may remember having been taught that linking verbs are "state of being" verbs, and many of them are actually derived from "to be," but the forms of "to be" are not the only verbs that can act as linking verbs.)

For now, we are concerned only with the "Someone or something is or seems to be something" type of sentence--the sentence type that uses linking verbs.

Some forms of "to be" serve as helping verbs (auxiliary verbs) in action verb phrases: was walking; am trying; had been reading. But when a "to be" verb stands alone or as the main verb in a verb phrase, it is a linking verb. Forms of "seem" are also linking verbs.

Linking verbs have that name because their function is to link the subject of a clause with something that comes after the verb and either identifies or describes the subject.


    ~He is tired.
    ~I was helpless.
    ~The situation seemed hopeless.
    ~She is a fool.
    ~That's a real problem.

The "something" that follows a linking verb is called a subject complement.** This is just a fancy way of saying "subject completer." The subject complement "completes" the idea of the subject by describing it or identifying it.

Since the subject of a clause is either a noun or a noun substitute, otherwise known as a substantive, anything used to describe it will be adjectival, and anything used to name or identify it will be a substantive. In other words, the subject complement slot in a clause with a linking verb can only be filled by an adjective (either a one-word adjective or an adjective phrase or clause) or a substantive (a noun or noun substitute, such as a pronoun or a noun phrase or clause). It cannot be filled by any other part of speech.

Some words that can be action verbs in some utterances will be linking verbs in others. For example, if I say "The children grew tomatoes in their garden," I am describing something they did. But if I say, "The children grew restless," then I am describing what they became--i.e., in this sentence, "grew" is a linking verb, describing a "state of being."

Here are a few more examples of verbs that can be either action or linking verbs, depending on the sentence:

The ship appeared on the horizon. (ACTION VERB)

You appear tired. (= You seem to be tired. LINKING VERB)

Smell this milk. (ACTION VERB)

Does it smell sour? (= seem to be = LINKING VERB)

Feel this fabric. (ACTION VERB)

Does this fabric feel smooth to you? (= seem to be = LINKING VERB)

Let me feel your forehead. (ACTION VERB)

Do you feel sick? (= seem to be = LINKING VERB)

When you say, "I feel bad," you are expressing a state of being, similar to "I feel helpless." In both cases, you should use the adjective ("bad" or "helpless") rather than the adverb ("badly" or "helplessly), because the subject complement slot cannot be filled by an adverb.

To "feel badly" is to be incapable of effectively using your tactile organs. If my fingertips are too numb for me to tell whether that fabric is smooth or rough, then I feel badly, but the fabric itself would feel (seem to be) either smooth or rough.


**If the subject complement is a noun, it is called a predicate noun. If it is an adjective, it is called a predicate adjective. Of course, you will probably never need to know this information.

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