Feeling bad(ly)

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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]".


  1. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    I can't even appeal to nuns who taught me, for I was taught by none, but “feel badly” has always meant, to me, an expression of regret, remorse or shame. Not of feeling physically unwell.

  2. Keith Ivey said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

    There's also the adjective poorly.

  3. Ellen K. said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

    For me, because of that adjective badly meaning unwell, reading "I feel badly" sounds like the person is saying they are ill. Thus, it sounds to me like an error when used for feeling "guilty, regretful, or sorry". Which is I guess because I'm also not familiar with "badly" used that way. (Not like words can't have two meanings.)

    I notice Wiktionary gives the "ill" (adjective) meaning of badly as Northern English. Well, I (American) wouldn't use it that way. But I'm familiar with it.

  4. Leo Daedalus said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

    I was going to mention "poorly" too. I run into it with Brits, who often seem to be that "in hospital".

  5. Ray Girvan said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

    "Badly" seems to be the frequent subject of grammatical advice that goes wildly against idiomatic usage. Another mis-parsing I see occasionally concerns failure to recognise when it's being used as an adverb meaning "strongly" / "severely" / "intensely". For instance, Dr Grammar says here:

    Example: "He smells badly." This sentence means he can't detect the smell of his girlfriend's perfume …

    It doesn't. Here "smells" is an intransitive verb, and "badly" means "strongly" / "intensely".

  6. Emily said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

    To elaborate on what Ellen K. said: Using "I feel badly" to describe sickness sounds odd to me (am I correct in thinking it's a British usage? I'm American), but I can see how it makes logical sense– we say "I (don't) feel well," and "badly" is the opposite of "well."

    However, using "I feel badly" for an emotional condition (like guilt or grief) certainly strikes me as wrong, since you're negating "I feel good," rather than "I feel well."

    And "doing badly" is certainly distinct from "doing ill" in my dialect– the former means doing a lousy job, but the latter is an archaic-sounding way to say "doing something evil."

  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    More here on the Motivated Grammar blog. In the comments, Mike Pope supplies the obligatory Isaac Asimov quote: "'Feeling badly' is the mark of an inept dirty old man."

  8. The Ridger said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    @Emily: But many would say that "badly" is the opposite of "well" only in the "well = good-adverb" sense, not the "healthy" sense. Except, of course, that for many, many people, it does mean the same as, say, "sickly" – also definitely an adjective – or, as noted, "poorly". At any rate, to me "I feel badly" means "I'm not well" while "I feel bad" means "I'm not happy". YMMV.

  9. C Thornett said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    I have even heard poorly used as an adjective in a primary school setting in the UK: 'Have you got a poorly tummy?' 'He fell down and he has a poorly knee.'

    My memories (West Coast US, some time ago) suggest 'I feel bad' means 'I feel ill/unhappy/angry/hungover' and so on more often than it is a comment on one's moral state.

  10. Lukas said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

    Maybe Jim just used "We feel terribly for the victims" to mean "We feel strongly for the victims", with "terrible" as a synonym for "strong". Same might work for Arne's quote.

  11. Keith Ivey said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

    Grackle, presumably the second "badly" was supposed to be "bad". And "[ADVERB]" means there's an adverb at that point in the phrase.

  12. hector said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    Don't know that I've ever heard someone say "I feel bad," meaning "I am bad." Rather, they'd say "I feel like I've done something wrong," or "I feel guilty." Of course, there's the now-passed (I think) slang "I feel baad," with the vowel emphasized and elongated, meaning I feel like doing something naughty or not approved.

  13. Sid Smith said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    "I notice Wiktionary gives the "ill" (adjective) meaning of badly as Northern English."

    Yes. Very common with my mum's generation, not so much now. (I'm from Lancashire.)

  14. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

    It seems to me that "I feel badly about/for/because/that X…" is both frequent and unambiguous enough that the complaints against it are necessarily invalid.

    It's in my idiolect, by the way—though I intuit that I've long been increasingly more likely to use "bad", probably as the result of an unconscious awareness that "badly" is a non-prestige usage.

  15. Ray Girvan said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

    On reflection, I think that this …

    I feel very, very badly for the children there.

    … is an example of the form I mentioned – "badly" as a negative intensifier, equivalent to "very strongly ".

  16. eeden said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

    @ray girvan – I've come across the British use of 'poorly' also. I'm Irish (but had American childhood). Mancunian family members say that someone is 'feeling poorly' but you can also 'be poorly' or even have a 'poorly tummy' or even a 'poorly finger', 'poorly leg', or I suppose maybe even a 'poorly gall bladder' …?!

  17. eeden said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

    Sorry that should have been to @c thornett…

  18. Janice Byer said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    Mr. Mulshine blames the apparent(ly) hyper(ly) corrected grammar of a CEO on "some time-server of a teacher". Given we don't learn our native language from teachers, much less only from teachers, nor even only in childhood but for as long as our brains are able, that feels wrong. N.B. I managed to sense it was "wrong" and not "wrongly" though I wasn't schooled in "the role of predicate adjectives" until today. I wasn't schooled in the "role of N.B." either and hope this first attempt to use it doesn't bring calumny on Professor Google.

  19. Ray Girvan said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

    More examples: "badly needs" = strongly needs .

    [(myl) Also "badly wants".]

  20. Erica Holland said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 9:17 pm

    This reminds me of a scene from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:

    "Clearly I'm interrupting; I feel badly. Let me … what are you drinking? I'll buy…"
    "Bad? Sorry, I feel…?"
    "You feel bad. Badly is an adverb, so to say you feel badly is to say that the mechanism which allows you to feel is broken."

  21. Ray Girvan said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

    @Janice Byer Given we don't learn our native language from teachers

    Not in general, but many specific factoids about grammar (at the level of "don't end sentences with a preposition" / "don't start sentences with a conjunction") are propagated through schooling rather than early language acquisition.

  22. Marc Leavitt said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

    "Are you sick?"
    "Yes, I feel bad."

    "Are you sick?"
    "Yes, I feel badly."

    I think common usage falls on the side of the first example. And moreover, I don't feel goodly about the second example.

  23. Ray Girvan said,

    August 20, 2011 @ 10:47 pm

    Sorry for yet another comment, but on further reflection about

    I feel very, very badly for the children there

    … I think this is actually using the phrasal verb "feel for" (i.e. to commiserate / sympathise) with "very, very badly" as the intensifier.

  24. Cirret said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 7:49 am

    In feel badly for, for me badly conveys the nature of the feeling, not the strength; e.g. I feel a little badly for X. However, *slightly badly needs just sounds confused, even though badly seems to convey something more than strongly.

  25. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 8:07 am

    This all brings to mind that bad old joke:

    My dog has no nose.

    How does it smell?


    (Of course, the dog also smells badly.)

  26. Ellen K. said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 8:09 am

    My impression is that there's a lot of variation here, as far as what phrases people do and don't use, and are familiar with others using, in different situations. I wonder if that's regional, or some other pattern (or no pattern).

  27. John Ward said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    I'm surprised that so many people accept 'badly' as the opposite of 'well.' I would think that the opposite of 'well' is 'ill.' We don't just use it with infirmities; we also use it with past participles. The opposite of being well-prepared is being ill-prepared. Though, I suppose, the opposite of a well-cooked steak is not an ill-cooked steak.

  28. Allan L. said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    Reading this makes me feel unwell.

  29. Ellen K. said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    I'm surprised that so many people accept 'badly' as the opposite of 'well.' I would think that the opposite of 'well' is 'ill.'

    For me, it is not the opposite of well, it's an opposite of well. And not even one I personally use. But one I recognize.

    It's not like every word has a single opposite. And, when we speak and choose a word like "badly", "ill", or "sick", we aren't trying to express the opposite of some concept. We are expressing a concept.

    Personally, "ill" is not part of my active vocabulary. I'd say "I don't feel well" or "I feel sick" or something more specific related to what I'm experiencing right then.

    And no reason why different meanings of a word should have the same word as an opposite. Even more so if those different meanings are also a different part of speech.

    For me, the opposite of well-prepared is poorly prepared. Or even perhaps badly prepared. But not "ill-prepared". It's fine when other people say it. Doesn't sound at all non-standard to me. But not what I'd use.

  30. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

    It's not like every word has a single opposite. And, when we speak and choose a word like "badly", "ill", or "sick", we aren't trying to express the opposite of some concept. We are expressing a concept.

    Yes, this. Emphatically. (And not just because Ellen K. and I seem to share usages in these cases.)

    Please forgive me if I'm being provocative, but a lot of the reasoning in these comments sounds quite like the sort of prescriptive fallacious reasoning about language and usage that has so often been examined and debunked on LL. Language is not mathematics, it's not required to operate according to strict logical rules.

    If you'll excuse me for not being competent with the correct terminology to precisely discuss this…but it seems to me the supposed problem with this use of badly is that it has a particular grammatical form that, in this usage, is merely a product of its etymology and is not determinative. If it's widely used and there's little or no ambiguity in meaning, then it's not an error. It's a word with an irregular form.

  31. JMM said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

    I remember when 'conservative' meant something besides "whines-a-lot". Ohh, for the good old days.

    Having an upland southern accent that long, long years on the eastern seaboard hasn't erased, and having frequent contact with siblings and cousins who wouldn't have erased it even if given the chance, I assure you this usage is common, and is neither class nor education related. (Personally, I'd be more likely to say 'worried about' than 'worried for', but…)

    Having just move back here after two decades, and as a onetime middle-school history teacher, I'm a bit more concerned about the efforts to take Jefferson out of the texts.

  32. JMM said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 8:12 pm

    that should have said "'feel badly about' than 'feel badly for'", and I should put the keyboard away now, but no, I haven't been drinking, and I don't get it either.

  33. nbm said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

    I'm still brooding over the cases, per Mr. Edwin Herbert Lewis, where you'd say "I feel bad" to mean "I feel evil" (and not to mean "I feel bad [guilty] for behaving badly [immorally])." All I've got is the possible cinematic scenario of the supervillain or gang leader urging his minions on to crime: "Come, lads, let's go steal things and beat people up, I feel bad today!"

  34. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

    Yeah, nbm, that's a usage that seems straightforward and easy to imagine but which I'm not sure I've ever used myself or even heard.

    Actually, though, I'm experiencing one of those almost-but-not-quite-near-memories of a female film/tv character getting some sort of villainy power-up and then shivering and announcing, with relish, "I feel baad."

  35. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

    @Ray Girvan: I can't explain why I'm sure, but I'm sure Secretary Duncan's badly just means bad.

    He has used badly this way before, as on this page of answers to NEA members' questions:

    "I feel badly she was laid off. "

    Although by no means everyone says this I feel badly, I'd bet it's pretty close to universal among people who say I feel badly for someone.

  36. Breffni said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 4:03 am

    'Feel badly' in the sense of 'regretful, guilty' is fine in my Irish English, but Christopher Hitchens counts it among the Americanisms that he considers 'spots on the sun' of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop:

    Scoop, though written by one who affected infinite contempt for America, pays its own tribute to modernity and Americanism. For all the dated 'Bright Young Thing' slang […] the New World is visible over the horizon […] [mentions 'gotten', 'poor hick', 'sucker'…] Most amazing of all, 'When Corker and his friends' make a certain discovery about a ticket collector on their Ishmaelite train, 'they felt very badly about this.' Felt very badly? This may be one of the earliest usages of this barbarous neoligism [sic], and I felt ungood about it'. (Introduction to Scoop, Penguin Classics edition 2000.)

    He's wrong about 'one of the earliest usages', unless he means 'from the pen of an English writer': OED's citations go back to 1825, but they're all American. And I'm not sure what he's getting at exactly by using 'ungood'. Maybe he just means to draw attention to 'badly', but it reads like a distracting allusion to 1984.

  37. Colin John said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 8:07 am

    Feel 'badly', meaning feel ill is heard reasonably often in Northern England ('Poorly' seems to me to be less regional). I believe that I could hear 'think badly of' without any problem, as that seems to be a set phrase. However 'feel badly for' did bring me up short. I'm a BrE speaker in my 50s.

  38. Tom said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 11:16 am

    How about the exact-opposite of bad, good? Would that great linguist James Brown have sung, "I feel goodly?" I don't think he wouldly.

  39. Boris said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    No, the opposite of badly is well.

    For me, there is no single word that would satisfactorily describe being sick in terms of feeling. I would almost certainly say "I don't feel well". For me (New Jersey):

    I feel bad – I regret what I did earlier (or am about to do)
    I feel badly – borderline OK synonym for the above
    I feel poorly – Wrong unless used in some contrived context about losing my sense of touch
    I feel poor – I feel like I'm not rich
    I feel sick – I think I'm going to throw up
    I feel sickly – I feel like I can easily get sick
    I feel ill – Wrong
    I feel unwell – Wrong

  40. Ken Brown said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    @Boris, why is "I feel ill" wrong?

    For me the unmarked term for not being in good health is "I feel sick". But I've come across people who assume that means I'm going to vomit so I sometimes try deliberately to say "I fell ill" though its a little formal and unnatural – the same goes for "unwell", doctors say that, patients don't!

    "I feel bad" is not about guilt or regret though. It means I feel ill or uncomfortable. But "I feel bad *about* X" probably is. As is "I feel *so* bad".

    "Badly" for sick is not in my version of English, though I think I would understand it if I heard it. "Poorly" is much more common, though it does sound rather twee and old-fashioned. I can't imagine using it, though I do sometimes hear it.humourously.

  41. Ken Brown said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:21 am

    @nbm: All I've got is the possible cinematic scenario of the supervillain or gang leader urging his minions on to crime: "Come, lads, let's go steal things and beat people up, I feel bad today!"

    @Keith M Ellis: I'm experiencing one of those almost-but-not-quite-near-memories of a female film/tv character getting some sort of villainy power-up and then shivering and announcing, with relish, "I feel baad."

    Yes. You are both right! And the Mr Lewis quoted in the OP is wrong when he wrote "If I say 'I feel bad' the bad seems to mean moral badness: i.e. 'I am bad'" Or maybe he would be wrong now, he might not have been a hundred years ago. f I say "I feel bad today" I probably mean that I have a hangover. Or that whatever chronic disease I have is worse than normal. I do NOT mean "I am experiencing an unusually intense predilection to commit morally evil acts". On the other hand I can imagine Brian Blessed in some sort of fantasy costume declaiming "I feel BAAAAAAD today!!" and that would be quite different. Its all in the prosody.

  42. Keith said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

    In many parts of Yorkshire, North Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire (and possibly parts of Cheshire, too) it is just as common to say "he's badly", as to say "he's poorly" or "he's ill".

    In my experience, "[I'm feeling | I feel] badly" is less common that "[I'm feeling | I feel] poorly".


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