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.
*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.
*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.