A couple of readers have drawn my attention to Jay Nordlinger's critique of Arne Duncan's grammar ("The Education Secretary's Poor Sense of Touch", National Review Online 8/20/2011):
Arne Duncan, our illustrious education secretary, is all weepy over the young’uns in Texas. They don’t get no education, what with that mean Rick Perry in charge. Duncan said, “I feel very, very badly for the children there.”
He feels badly, does he? Something wrong with his sense of touch? He can’t tell wood from water from sand? Does he feel sadly and terribly and angrily too?
(The source of the quote is here.)
I discussed this issue at length a couple of years ago ("Prescribing terribly", 4/23/2009):
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.
It's worth noting that "feel badly" has a significant amount of mindshare: the COCA corpus has 107 instances of "feel badly" compared to 1325 instances of "feel bad" (7.5% badly), and 53 instances of "feel [ADVERB] badly" vs. 313 instances of "feel [ADVERB] bad" (14.5% badly).
And there are even some authorities (?) whose advice favors this form. Thus Edwin Herbert Lewis, A First Book in Writing English, 1897, argues as follows:
There is a group of words — verbs of sensation and the like, look, sound, feel, smell, taste, appear, seem — which take an adjective to complete their meaning. "She looks sweet," "It tastes sweet," "She seems happy," are common and correct ways of speaking. Notice that here something of the same idea can be given by saying, "She is sweet," "It is sweet," "She is happy." The sweet idea or the happy idea describes the subject, the person, not the verb. Of course, one might write a sentence in which the sweet idea would tell the way a given act was done. "She looked sweetly" would imply that she was gazing sweetly at something or somebody.
But here must be noted an exception or two. (a) The word bad has two senses: moral badness, and badness that is not moral — badness of health, for instance. If I say "I feel bad," the bad seems to mean moral badness: i.e. "I am bad." It is therefore permissible to break the rule and apply badly to physical feeling. "I feel badly" is a common expression for "I feel sick"; and by the exception to the rule is correct.
One possible explanation for Mr. Lewis's intuition is (as I noted in the 2009 post) 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".
If this is right, then "feel terribly" really is a hypercorrection, whereas "feel badly" is OK — if you construe badly as an adjective rather than an adverb.
Update — Ray Girvan and others in the comments point out that badly is often used as an intensifier (for concepts with negative emotional valence) — when we say that someone was "badly burned", we don't mean that they were poorly, insufficiently, inadequately, imperfectly, defectively, unsuccessfully, or improperly burned. The situation is similar for "badly needed", "badly damaged", "badly injured", or "badly beaten".
And Ray also points out that feel can mean (as the OED puts it) "To have the sensibilities excited; esp. to have sympathy with, compassion for (a person, his sufferings, etc.)"
Putting these two things together, it's plausible that "feel badly for Texas schoolchildren" can be used to mean "have considerable compassion for Texas schoolchildren".
Finally, I should have cited the useful entry in Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which indirectly cites Ernest Hemingway's fondness for (writing about) feeling badly, suggesting that Arne Duncan shouldn't feel too badly about being called out for this alleged mistake.
Update #2 — an alternative analogy for "feel badly for|about" is "think badly of". Here are a few hits from COCA:
Perfectionists fear that a mistake will lead others to think badly of them
We overextend ourselves because we fear disappointing others and worry that they'll think badly of us.
Most of us at Harvard thought badly of Justice Douglas's opinions, even though we generally agreed with him
And from Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy:
Disposed as I was to think badly of him, I never doubted that his love for her was real.
Do you think badly of me for my behaviour this evening, child?
And from Google Books:
Schellenberg also considers an alternative reading of Swinburne, namely, that it is an awareness that God will think badly of us if we act wrongly, rather than fear of punishment, that would make impossible a choice of destiny.
In these examples, to think "badly" of course does not mean to think "poorly, insufficiently, inadequately, imperfectly, defectively, unsuccessfully, or improperly".
Note that in this case, the opposite condition is to "think well of [someone]".