Prescribing terribly

« previous post | next post »

In responding to bad publicity about the "Craigslist Killer", Jim Buckmaster has been accused of violating the norms of English grammar. An article in the Boston Globe  ("Craiglist CEO: Our site is not sex-related", 4/22/2009) quotes him as telling CNN that "We feel terribly, and it's quite sad that anyone would lose their life". To which Paul Mulshine, a syndicated columnist for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, responded "No, you feel terrible; you merely speak terribly".

According to Mr. Mulshine, feel in this case is what he calls a "linking verb", which is followed not by an adverb but by a "predicate adjective", describing "not the action of the predicate but the condition of the subject". He calls Mr. Buckmaster's usage a "hypercorrectionism", caused by "some time-server of a teacher" who warned "little Jimmy" against leaving the -ly off of adverbs, but "never got around to explaining the role of a predicate adjective".

The inattentive reader who accused this weblog of an irrational "crusade against 'prescriptivism'" may be surprised to find that (some details of terminology aside) I largely agree with Mulshine. The expected standard form really is "We feel terrible", and "We feel terribly" is probably a hypercorrection, a violation of the norms of standard English caused by a misguided attempt to apply a misunderstood "rule" about what those norms should be.

Mr. Mulshine's main argument for this analysis is an appeal to the authority of "the nuns [who taught] me when I was a young lad". With all due respect to his teachers, a better form of argument emerges from a careful descriptive analysis of the relevant areas of English usage. In the time available to me now, I'll just sketch the main outlines of such an analysis.

To start with, let's establish that the normal pattern really is feel <adjective>. In Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens wrote

It was hard work, resuming his studies, soon after dinner; and he felt giddy and confused and drowsy and dull.

not

*It was hard work, resuming his studies, soon after dinner; and he felt giddily and confusedly and drowsily and dully.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote

But my being so angry prevented me from feeling foolish, which is very lucky for people in a passion.

not

*But my being so angry prevented me from feeling foolishly, which is very lucky for people in a passion.

The index at Literature Online finds 22 hits for the search pattern "[feel | felt | feeling | feels] foolish". There are 2 hits for "[feel | felt | feeling | feels] foolishly", but both are cases where the adverb modifies a following predicative adjective: "I feel foolishly afraid" and "I felt foolishly conscious of my wandering moods".

Similarly, there are 21 hits for the search pattern "[feel | felt | feeling | feels] drowsy", and the single hit for "[feel | felt | feeling | feels] drowsily" is again a case where the adverb modifies a predicative adjective:

322   … she felt it suck,
323   And, as the little lips drew forth the milk,
324   Felt drowsily resign'd, and closed her eyes,
325   And trembled, and could feel the happy tears.

The results will be similar for nearly all cases of apparent adjective/adverb choice in this context.

What's the argument that Mr. Buckmaster's usage was a hypercorrection rather than merely a variant of some other kind? Well, there's no general standard-English pattern for using adverbs to express how the subject of feel feels, as the discussion above indicates. And as discussed in my post "Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?", 2/23/2007, there's definitely an ill-informed prescriptivist prejudice against predicative adjectives.

However, there's one common case that's more complex, and may have played a causal role in Mr. Buckmaster's choice of phrasing. If we query LION with "[feel | felt | feeling | feels] bad" vs. "[feel | felt | feeling | feels] badly", the first pattern gets 174 hits, while the second gets 69. Of the 69, a few are things like " I began to feel badly confused" or "And respectable citizens feel badly let doon", but most are like "George, I feel badly. Get me some whiskey" or "Mrs. Hobbs, who felt badly about her brother's treachery, yielded to my entreaties".

Does this mean that for some stems, feel allows an adverbial rather than an adjectival form to express the meaning that is usually expressed by a following predicative adjective?

The OED lists two relevant senses for badly. The first is given as sense 9:

9. orig. U.S. to feel badly: to feel guilty, regretful, or sorry.

The earliest citation for this form is from the early 19th century:

1825 W. S. CARDELL Story of Jack Halyard (ed. 3) iii. 30 When Mr Halyard came home, they told him what had been done. He felt badly, but did not say much.

Although this sense is listed as an adverb, note that the gloss relates it to three predicative adjectives; also note that the use is limited to an idiomatic combination with feel, so that you couldn't say "he seems badly" meaning "he seems guilty, regretful, or sorry".

The second relevant OED sub-entry is the adjectival form of badly, which is attested back to the 17th century:

B. adj. (chiefly predicative).    Chiefly Sc. and Eng. regional. Unwell, in ill health; = POORLY adj.

1654 H. MORE Let. 1 May in Conway Lett. (1992) ii. 96 As for the Physick..I took it 3 pills a day for 4 dayes together, and was something weake after it and looked badly [for] it, as they tell me.
1766 in Decisions Court of Session (Faculty of Advocates) (1777) IV. 81, I am taken badly, and know not but it may be death.
1779 J. WARNER in J. H. Jesse G. Selwyn & his Contemp. (1844) IV. 259, I called upon the old duchess, who is ‘sorely badly’, as they say in Lincolnshire, with her old complaint.

My tentative analysis of this is that there's an old adjectival form badly (like goodly or  sickly or measly), which began with the meaning "unwell" and was generalized at some point to mean "guilty, regretful, or sorry", although only in the phrase "feel badly". The phrase "feel badly", with either of those meanings of badly, still involves a predicative adjective; but it may encourage those who have been made to feel uneasy about predicative adjectives to yield to their impulse towards hypercorrections like "feel terribly".

Of course, if enough people engage often enough in a particular hypercorrection, it may become part of the norms of the language. In this particular case, there are at least three ways that could happen, in order of decreasing generality: (1) feel could change so as to allow following adverbs as a general way to express properties of its subject; (2) terribly could take on a second life as an adjective; (3) the expression "feel terribly" could become an idiom, as a sort of intensive form of "feel badly". It's quite clear, I think, that (1) has not happened. The evidence is also pretty strongly against (2) — "*he seems terribly" is just as bad as "*he seems badly", I think. But I'm not sure about the status of (3) — as an alternative (or supplement) to hypercorrection, it's plausible.



42 Comments

  1. DW said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    Cf. "poorly" adj., Chiefly Brit.1. unwell. (Originally only in predicative use, and in attrib. use still somewhat colloq.)

  2. Cameron said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    "Poorly" in the sense mentioned in the previous comment is common in Northern England. For people who use it, it is contrasted with "sick" – if a Yorkshireman says someone is "poorly" that connotes someone home in bed nursing a cold or some such minor ailment. If you say someone is "sick" that would tend to imply that the person in question has some dread disease or very serious ailment – and might be in a hospital bed clinging to life.

  3. Peter Howard said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 10:20 am

    My interpretation of "We feel terribly" was something close to "We sympathise greatly" which means something different from "We feel terrible" and is grammatical for me. It also has less of an implication that Craigslist is accepting responsibility for the death.

    [(myl) Wouldn't this analysis imply that Mr. Buckmaster might as well have said "We feel greatly"?

    Note that on the OED's analysis, the idiom "feel badly" does mean something a bit different from "feel bad". So perhaps you've joined him in adopting "feel terribly" as the intensive form. ]

  4. Franz Bebop said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    What about the word "well," as in "I feel well" or "I am well" ?

    Perhaps the source of the hypercorrection is the mistaken belief that "well" here is an adverb, when in fact it is an adjective.

    Among the English-speakers I grew up with, the adjective "well" was rare. (There weren't any "Wellness Centers" when I was young.) As a boy in school, I always believed that both phrases ("I feel well" and "I am well") were stilted grammar-book English, and that in both cases "well" should be replaced with the word "good," which is clearly an adjective.

    The misunderstanding is that "well" must be an adverb, and therefore the phrase itself requires an adverb. Maybe "feel badly" and "feel terribly" are backformations/hypercorrections in response to this misinterpretation.

  5. BReed said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    Excuse the popular reference, but it's nicely set out for the cheap seats in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:
    Early scene:
    Harry: Umm, clearly I'm interrupting. I feel badly. Let me… What are you drinking?
    Harmony: Bad.
    Harry: Bad? Sorry… feel…?
    Harmony: You feel bad.
    Harry: Bad?
    Harmony: Badly is an adverb. So to say you feel badly would be saying that the mechanism which allows you to feel is broken.

    And later:
    Perry: Go. Sleep badly. Any questions, hesitate to call.
    Harry: Bad.
    Perry: Excuse me?
    Harry: Sleep bad. Otherwise it makes it seem like the mechanism that allows you to sleep…
    Perry: What, f**khead? Who taught you grammar? Badly's an adverb. Get out. Vanish.

  6. Amy Reynaldo said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    I agree with Franz Bebop—confusing "well" = healthy with "well" = adverbial version of "good" may be what's nudging people to think they need an adverb. I'll bet a lot of children have been corrected after saying "I don't feel good" and told that the proper wording is "I don't feel well." From there it's a short journey to "I feel poorly" or "he smells badly."

  7. Tayloj said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    Peter Howard's comment leads me to wonder if "We feel terribly" could be some kind of mix between "[I | we] feel (for) [you | them]", expressing sympathy, and "We're terribly sorry (about what happened)".

  8. Andrew said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    I would suppose (but correct me if I am wrong) that the adjectival sense of 'well' did in fact develop from the adverbial sense; 'I am well' would originally have meant something like 'I am in a good state' (which is not the same as 'I am good'). It's worth noticing that 'ill' was also in origin an adverb, meaning 'badly', though now, idiomatically, it is only an adjective meaning 'in bad health'.

    Amy Reynaldo; I would say that 'He smells badly' means something different from 'He smells bad'; it would mean that he smells (bad, by implication) strongly, rather than mildly.

  9. marie-lucie said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    AM: I'll bet a lot of children have been corrected after saying "I don't feel good" and told that the proper wording is "I don't feel well." From there it's a short journey to "I feel poorly"

    I don't think that the "short journey" accounts for "I feel/am poorly" since this is never used as an alternate form of "I feel/am poor".

    The suffix -ly occurs in a few other adjectives such as early and friendly (the latter is never used as an adverb in standard English).

    Here in Nova Scotia (Canada) local people never say I feel well or I am well but i am good.

  10. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    Should it be considered a success that Jim Buckmaster used a singular "their," and Paul Mulshine didn't say anything about it?

  11. Peter Seibel said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    Is it possible that Buckmaster's "feel terribly" resulted from an elision, either in his head or in the journalist's transcription of what he said? Something like, "We feel terribly the tragedy of this case," sounds okay to my ear.

  12. Colin John said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    I know I have heard 'badly' as an adjective meaning unwell ("He's proper badly") in Northern dialect English – when I say it to myself I use a Lancashire accent, so I assume that's where I associate it with. It would be the equivalent to 'poorly', which is more common and is used in Yorkshire and Lancashire dialect.

  13. John Lawler said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    Whatever Mulshine's (or Buckmaster's) motives, and whatever the details about official grammaticality and/or correctness, the fact (which Mark kindly does not point out) remains that it's rude to correct other people's incidental use of language, unless you're specifically requested to.

    Mulshine's rant, besides demonstrating his own lack of credentials, does nothing to improve life for anyone, and distracts attention from a potentially important topic to one of no importance at all. This can hardly be called a service, or even minimal competence, imo.

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    Andrew: Amy Reynaldo; I would say that 'He smells badly' means something different from 'He smells bad'; it would mean that he smells (bad, by implication) strongly, rather than mildly.
    Agreed. To me (UK, 1956 vintage) this is fine, and fits the OED's sense #7 of "badly" = "greatly, very much". But it appears a regional (+ age?) issue: a lot of people, I assume sincerely but to me rather bizarrely, take "X smells badly" solely to be a statement that X's sense of smell isn't functioning properly (see this old Yahoo Answers thread).

  15. Ronald Kephart said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    Last fall I ran into a Chinese student who was studying English as a second language. She was confused about being told that she had to say "the food tastes well" rather than "the food tastes good." I thought this was insane, and I told her so; I wrote a little about it on my new (as in, my first attempt at blogging) blog at:

    http://crankylinguist.blogspot.com/2009/03/prescriptivists-gone-wild.html

    Ron Kephart
    University of North Florida

  16. Peter Howard said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    myl enquired: Wouldn't this analysis imply that Mr. Buckmaster might as well have said "We feel greatly"?

    Yes, though it would sound weirder to me than "We feel terribly" where 'terribly' is an adverb modifying 'feel'. But not as weird as "We feel terribly" where 'terribly' is a 'predicate adjective' (which sounds ungrammatical to me). So no, I don't think I've joined Mr. Buckmaster in adopting "feel terribly" as the intensive form. (Not that I would mind if I had; I just don't think I have.)

  17. Karen said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    @Andrew: my sister startled me some years back by saying she felt "ill" about something, meaning "angry". It seems a common usage back home (East Tennessee).

  18. red said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

    @ Andrew –

    'ill' was also in origin an adverb, meaning 'badly', though now, idiomatically, it is only an adjective meaning 'in bad health'.

    'Ill' still = 'badly' pretty commonly as the first element of forms like 'ill-written', 'ill-educated'. I shouldn't imagine the coinage rate of new compound 'ill-' adjectives is very high these days, but still, may I suggest your 'only' was ill-advised?

  19. John Cowan said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

    I don't think your theory that feel badly is a survival of the old adjective badly 'poorly, unwell, sick' will hold up, because the point of I feel badly is precisely that it is opposed to I feel bad, and it is the latter that means 'sick'. I don't come to work when I feel (sufficiently) bad, but I manage to stagger in even if I feel badly about the last bug perpetrated on my unsuspecting users.

    This does not mean that badly in this idiom is not an adjective: I think it is.

  20. kenny said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    "I feel for him"
    "I feel terribly (for him)"

  21. Andrew said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    red: True. But I think 'only' is still correct when we consider 'ill' as a free-standing word (in most dialects of Englsh, at least, though as Karen's sister shows, not in all).

  22. Timothy Martin said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    One American's opinion.

    However the phrase "feel badly" came into being, it seems to me that the way it's parsed in the minds of speakers (or at least among my – the younger – generation) is not as an adjective.

    To begin with, words like Goodly and Sickly "register" as adjectives in my intuitive mind, albeit slightly old-timey, not-so-frequently-used ones. Badly, however, does not. It only "feels" like an adverb to me.

    Secondly, something about the way people use -ly words with linking verbs has always suggested to me that they were using them as adverbs. I'm not studied on the semantics of adverbs, but surely there's no rule saying that "feel badly" when parsed as Feel + adverb would have to mean that one's mechanism for feeling is broken. "Feeling in a bad way" could, in this case, be synoymous with the adjective interpretation, i.e. that the speaker "feels bad."

    As further evidence that this might be the reality for some people, I have noticed on occasion my friends "slipping up" in their speech and saying things like "They sounded badly" (referring to a musical performance) or "It came out well." You can argue that in these cases my friends were using the adjective forms of these words, but the case for hypercorrection seems stronger to me. I think people incorrectly generalize from "he did good = incorrect, he did well = correct" to "verb + adjective = incorrect, verb + adverb = good." Not many people learn the difference between non-linking and linking verbs, after all.

  23. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    @Andrew: "Ill" in this sense has in the past been free-standing, e.g. "Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania." And I'm pretty sure I could find modern examples of its free-standing use if I looked hard enough. Watch this space.

  24. [ni:v] said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    @BReed Thanks for the transcript! I thought of this movie as I was reading the article – very apt! I guess I'm in the cheap seats then… ;)

  25. acilius said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

    "Mr. Mulshine's main argument for this analysis is an appeal to the authority of "the nuns [who taught] me when I was a young lad". With all due respect to his teachers, a better form of argument emerges from a careful descriptive analysis of the relevant areas of English usage."

    A better form of argument in a linguistics-oriented forum certainly, but I'm not at all sure it would have been better for Mulshine's purposes. Say "the nuns [who taught] me when I was a young lad," and the average reader of the New Jersey Star-Ledger is likely to imagine a homespun tale of a boy in a parochial school. Say, "chapter six of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language," and that same reader will imagine some dreary evening in an academic library. Given the restraints the genre of a newspaper column imposes on its practitioners, a citation would likely have been all that Mulshine would have been able to insert. So Mulshine's options were 1) appeal to authority in a way that might keep the readers going to the end of the column, or 2) appeal to authority in a way that will prompt them to turn the page.

    Of course, I realize that the post is not really about Mulshine's piece but merely uses it as a hook on which to hang a discussion of the underlying linguistic phenomenon. And an engrossing discussion it is. I only wish there were room for something like it in the conventions of daily print journalism.

    @Professor Lawler: That's an excellent point. One certainly ought to observe a certain restraint in one's displays of knowledge. Perhaps one of the reasons why newspaper columns have such narrow generic boundaries is to limit the number of opportunities columnists have to lose that restraint. When they do have an opportunity and take it, as Mulshine has done here, the preening takes one of a handful of familiar forms and is therefore easy for regular readers to discount.

  26. gaston umlaut said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

    Until we can see the interview for ourselves I think it should be assumed it was a false start, or perhaps a word was mumbled, or it was the transcriber at fault.

  27. gaston umlaut said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

    Okay, I wrote too soon. I looked at the page again and down the bottom is the CNN interview. Watching it I found that he did indeed say 'we feel… terribly'. As I indicate, there was a slight pause before 'terribly', so it may well have been a slip.

  28. Mark Liberman said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    Here's some evidence that "feel terribly" has been an established phrase of elite apology for some time: "Didn't say it, she says: Ethel Barrymore Repudiates Interview Criticizing Society", NYT, 10/2/1908

    (Click here for an image of the article.)

    Charles Frohman, after receiving a telegram from Miss Ethel Barrymore, announced last night that the interview with her under a St. Louis date yesterday was wholly incorrect, and that Miss Barrymore had not made any of the severe criticisms of New York society she was quoted as making. [...]

    This is the telegram Mr. Frohman received from Miss Barrymore:

    [...] I was horrified to read in the morning issue of The Republic that I was cruelly and wrongfully quoted. The American society women were never touched upon. Those who know me realize too well my love and admiration for my American sisters. Not for worlds would I utter or make a statement that is so absolutely false and low as quoted in The St. Louis Republic of this day.

    I have made no reply either to the St. Louis paper or to the many telegrams from papers from New York and elsewhere. I have referred them all to you and want you to show to them in the strongest manner the absolute falseness of that statement. I feel terribly about it. Do your utmost and place me right before my friends and public.

    However Miss Barrymore may in fact have felt about it, terribly is certainly how she had been (quoted as) insulting her "American sisters". The NYT headline on 10/1/1908 read "ETHEL BARRYMORE SCORES SOCIETY; Wipe Out That in New York and There Would Be No Loss, She Says. TALKS AFTER A MATINEE American Marriages with Noblemen Fail, for Girls Haven't Culture Enough to Interest Husbands".

  29. Russell said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 3:03 am

    Re: possibility (1), from the Corpus of Contemporary American English, "feel" followed by an adverb that seems to be predicated of the subject, in order of frequency:

    strongly
    differently
    badly [with caveats from above, of course]
    terribly
    passionately
    otherwise
    positively
    awfully
    similarly

    Well, it's not productive, obviously. And further, these adverbs aren't just variants of adjectives: "feel strongly" does not mean anything like "feel strong," ditto for "feel similarly." But "feel passionate/passionately" seem pretty darn close.

    Some of these feel different (ahem), like they are not simply light ("linking") verbs allowing the subject to be a simple argument of the adverb, but rather full verbs which may themselves be modified. For instance, "we feel deeply for the family" likely involves a separate sense of "feel." Many of the instances of "feel strongly" have this flavor, but that can't be quite right: "I feel strongly about X" does not involve simple modification of "I feel about X," which is after all ungrammatical.

    (or, maybe this is a rare case of a verb obligatorily selecting an adverb, cf. "he worded his complaint *(poorly)," along with the possibility of omitting the about-phrase)

  30. Erin S. said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 4:01 am

    I can tell you that I did not learn about copular/linking verbs anytime in Elementary, Middle, or High School. In fact, I didn't learn the term "copular verb" until my senior year of college. A true tragedy, I know. But I consider myself to be an educated individual (considering, at the very least, that I stayed in college long enough to see my senior year), so for me never to have learned the difference between a copular and noncopular verb until my last semester of college, it really doesn't surprise me that some people are using adverbs where adjectives will suffice. It's an obvious mistake. Can we really fault these people? Perhaps they will actually win out in the end despite this mistake being somewhat of a shibboleth. What would happen if, about fifty years from now or longer, we no longer had the differentiation between copular and noncopular verbs. Would we feel so terribly about it?

  31. C. Thomas said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 4:55 am

    Might it be possible that a construction like this is just elliptically removing the predicate adjective? That is, where they are using "I feel terribly" they mean "I feel terribly bad." In that case – it almost sounds undignified and too casual for such a serious press release to simply say "we feel bad" in any context. Even "we feel terribly bad" has a tinge of informality – as if they were not taking the situation as serious as necessary. My inclination is to think that this is so, in particular after the corpus data presented: it seems clear that people know how to use it, maybe this is less hyper correction and instead diplomatic language?

  32. Mark Liberman said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    Here's an even earlier use of "feel terribly" in an elite apology. It's from "Cowley in Prison Garb", NYT, 3/3/1880, which begins:

    The Rev. Edward Cowley breakfasted in the City Prison yesterday for the last time. At 9:45 o'clock, Under Sheriff Stevens, accompanied by Deputy E.K. Smith, of the Order of Arrest Department, entered the priosn. Mr. Steven walked over to Cowley's cell, and, tapping on the bars, exhibited a commitment to take the prisoner to the Penitentiary.

    The critical passage is here:

    or transcribed,

    To the Warden Cowley said: "I didn't want to come here, and I feel terribly about coming, but now that I'm in for it I propose to take the bull by the horns. I shall give up all hopes of getting up, and settle down to work like a man."

    Some information about Cowley's crimes can be found here.

  33. Jan Freeman said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    MWDEU has an entry following several threads that might influence bad/badly. And note that for some people, "bad" meant chiefly "wicked." Here's Richard Meade Bache, in his 1865 usage book "Vulgarisms": “To feel bad is to feel conscious of depravity; to feel badly is to feel sick.”

  34. Franz Bebop said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    @Mark Lieberman:

    What do these citations demonstrate? If this is a hypercorrection, then can't these citations just be evidence of a hypercorrection with a long history?

    [(myl) Yes. But I'm beginning to suspect that something else has been going on; more on this later.]

    I'm wondering how one would go about demonstrating that some phrase is a hypercorrection.

    [(myl) The classical examples involve variety A lacking feature X which is found in variety B, and speakers of A over-generalizing X in apparent imitation of B. A good example would be the tendency of English speakers to add extraneous instances of ñ to borrowed Spanish words, e.g. habañero for habanero or empañada for empanada. The dynamics are pretty clear in cases of that sort.]

    @Erin S.: …it really doesn't surprise me that some people are using adverbs where adjectives will suffice. It's an obvious mistake. Can we really fault these people?

    English speakers who do not know the definition of copular verb can still perceive the difference between feel strongly and feel strong, or feel deeply and *feel deep. You never *feel terrifically or *feel horribly or *feel happily *feel sadly or *feel angrily, instead you just feel terrific or feel horrible or feel happy or feel sad or feel angry. From there it's just a short hop towards realizing that feel terribly actually doesn't make much sense, unless you really mean that you are doing a terrible job of feeling.

  35. Thor Lawrence said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    What is the possibility of the "terribly" being a simple quantitative enhancer, as in "It was a terribly good show." The "terribly" would then be a description of the depth of feeling, rather than a description of the type of feeling.
    Yrs
    Thor

    [(myl) But enhancer of what? and how? If terribly is just an adverb modifying feel, then it ought to be optional, and interchangeable with other modifiers. Thus

    He suffered terribly.
    He suffered a lot.
    He suffered.

    but

    We feel terribly, and it's quite sad.
    ?We feel a lot, and it's quite sad.
    ??We feel, and it's quite sad.
    ]

  36. Russell said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

    @Mark L: I'm sorry, but I have to take issue with feel terribly not making sense. Say it's in the same class of collocation as feel strongly. If native speakers can tell the difference between feel strongly and feel strong, then surely both expressions must make sense. If an interpretation can be consistently assigned to feel terribly distinct from feel terrible (more likely the former allows a subset of the interpretations that the latter does), then both must make sense. Now, if you want to ask if the semantics of the whole is trivially derived from the semantics of the parts, that's different.

    Also, this does seem to be something of a pattern that can be built off of, judging from the hits you get by searching for "feel sadly about," "feel stupidly about," etc. A very small number, to be sure, and some are self-conscious/humorous; but some seem genuine and un-self-conscious.

  37. Mark Liberman said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    Russell: I'm sorry, but I have to take issue with feel terribly not making sense. Say it's in the same class of collocation as feel strongly.

    I'm not sure who's saying that feel terribly doesn't make sense — it's certainly not me.

    But whatever feel terribly is, it's not quite the same class as feel strongly. In the first place, the feel of feel strongly is one that takes that-clauses and about-complements, but not (except in elliptical contexts) null complements:

    I feel strongly that we should leave.
    I feel strongly about leaving.
    ??I feel strongly.

    In comparison, feel terribly (for those who like it) takes about-complements and null complements, but not that-complements:

    ??I feel terribly that we should leave.
    (?) I feel terribly about leaving.
    (?) I feel terribly.

    Some other contrasts:

    I feel very strongly about it.
    ??I feel very terribly about it.

    My feelings about this are strong ones.
    ??My feelings about this are terrible ones. [very different meaning from I feel terrible]

    Of course, feel terrible/terribly is not the same as (say) feel drowsy either:

    Q: How do you feel?
    A: *I'm feeling drowsily.
    A: *I feel drowsily.
    A: I feel drowsy.
    A: I'm feeling drowsy.
    A: I'm getting drowsy.
    A: I'm starting to get drowsy.

    A: (?) I'm feeling terribly.
    A: (?) I feel terribly.
    A: I feel terrible
    A: I'm feeling terrible.
    A: *I'm getting terrible.
    A: *I'm starting to get terrible.

    So there's some complicated stuff going on here.

  38. Russell said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

    @Mark: I apologize. I somehow read Franz Bebop's comment and thought you posted it. Uh…whoops!

    Those are interesting sets of contrasts, which I'll have to think about more…however, I would analyze "I feel terribly" as involving ellipsis, though perhaps of a different kind than "I feel strongly." Maybe the latter requires a linguistic antecedent while the former does not? Well, this is probably time for a corpus study.

    Also, re: "very terribly", it might just be that "terribly" is the sort of adverb that is "end-of-scale" and resists degree modification anyway: I find "very terrible" to be slightly less than impeccable (sort of like ?very fascinating). So, a difference in the adverb, not in the complementation pattern of "feel."

  39. Mark Liberman said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    Russell: …it might just be that "terribly" is the sort of adverb that is "end-of-scale" and resists degree modification…

    It certainly resists degree modification, but it's not semantically end-of-scale, is it? You can perfectly well say things like "I feel terribly about it, and I'm sure I'll feel even worse tomorrow". (If you can say "I feel terribly" to start with, at least …)

  40. Russell said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

    The term is perhaps misleading. The way I know it is as a distributional class–they appear with "absolutely" and some other modifiers rather than "very". (so my claim that they resist degree modification was a bit too restrictive). Exactly what the semantic property they share is, I am not sure.

  41. Franz Bebop said,

    April 25, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    The problem with terrible in those examples may be semantic rather than syntactic. Compare with the word great, which also can refer to feelings, but doesn't necessarily refer to feelings:

    A: I'm feeling great.
    A: I feel great.
    A: *I'm getting great.
    A: *I'm starting to get great.

    There's nothing ungrammatical about I'm getting terrible or I'm getting great, it's just that without any context it's unclear that the speaker has in mind terrible feelings or great feelings.

    Then there's this:

    A: *I'm feeling greatly.

    Any defense of I'm feeling terribly ought to work with *I'm feeling greatly, too, but it just doesn't. As an English speaker, both of these phrases strike me as equally absurd. Both of them make me *feel weirdly. I just hope I'm not getting weird.

  42. Andrew said,

    April 28, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    Any defense of I'm feeling terribly ought to work with *I'm feeling greatly, too, but it just doesn't

    True. But ought not any explanation of I'm feeling terribly as hypercorrection also work with *I'm feeling greatly? If it were just hypercorrection, people would be saying 'I'm feeling Xly' for all values of X – and they aren't; which suggests something more complex is happening.

RSS feed for comments on this post