If You Feel Badly, Your Fingers May Be Numb

OK, it's time for some straight talk about the words bad and badly.  These words are, in many ways, the Grammar Guru's arch nemeses: they show up everywhere,victimizing innocent English speakers and making me itch to go into battle!

Let's look at badly first. It's an adverb, right?  Adverbs modify verbs (and adjectives and other adverbs), right?  So, when you say, "I feel badly" you are saying that you do the activity of "feeling" badly, or poorly.  Is that what you mean?  Are you having difficulty with your tactile sense?  Not usually.  Mostly when people say "I feel badly", they are trying to express a sense of guilt or a lack of health.

Heard all the time, but wrong regardless:

"I feel badly that I ran over your pet armadillo."

"How are you?" "I feel badly" or "I don't feel well."

We don't mean that our fingers have a difficult time detecting what they are touching or that we are unaware of our emotions; we mean that we are having negative emotions or that we are sick.

"I feel bad" means that I am guilty or that I am ill.   Feel is, in this case, a linking verb.  Some of you may be thinking, "So what?  Linking verb, schminking verb."  Others of you will be experiencing a faint recognition, realizing that you have heard this term somewhere in your distant past.  It is like the far off voice of a grammar teacher you once knew calling out your name as you daydream about zombie robots...

Here it is again, or for the first time:

A linking verb is a verb that shows a subject is equal to something (a noun or adjective) in a particular respect.

Those cookies smell delicious.  My pet armadillo was a true friend.

So, go ahead and say it: You feel bad.  You do not feel badly - unless your dentist gave you a shot of Novocaine.  In that case, yes, your mouth feels badly.  Don't eat until the numbness wears off, since your lack of feeling might lead you to chomp on your own cheek without realizing it.


I feel bad that I ate your homework.  Now that I have eaten your homework, I don't feel good.

Even better, tell people what you mean!

Correct and specific:

I feel remorseful about eating your homework.  Now that I've eaten all that paper and ink, I feel queasy.


Now try this one on for size.  A new movie is out.  You really want to see it.  Would you say, "I want to see that movie so bad!" or "I want to see that movie so badly!"

If you would opt for the first, you are using a common idiom wherein "bad" is used to express an extreme degree.  If you would use that second expression, you are either bad at wanting to watch the movie, in which case you should probably just skip it and spend your $12.50 somewhere else, or, you plan to watch it poorly.  Maybe by showing up late to the movie and then trying to watch it with a cardboard box over your head while listening to a recording of Grammar! The Audiobook through head phones.    

Similarly, "I hate you so badly" indicates that you are just no good at hating the intended object of your hatred. This may be true if you are in thrall to an epic but ill-fated love, or if you are a Buddhist, and are thus having difficulty feeling hatred due to conflicting emotions or spiritual enlightenment, respectively.

As I mentioned, using bad in this way is making use of an idiom, and a colloquial one at that.  This means it is really informal.  It's fine for use in conversation, but when it comes to writing, ditch the yokel talk and say what you mean.

I want to see that movie so much!

I really want to see that movie!

I'm excitedly anticipating the opening of that movie!

The truth is, there isn't a whole lot of room for the words bad and badly in a well-developed vocabulary. They don't mean much because they can mean almost anything.  The next time you are about to use one of these "bad boys", think about what you really want to express:

  • what makes a movie "bad"? 
  • what makes a friend "bad"?
  • what makes a sandwich "bad"?
  • what makes you feel like a test went "badly"?
  • what more subtle emotions are you experiencing when you feel "bad"?

Need some replacement words?  Check out the downloadable resource, "Replacements for Bad!