I Feel Bad

… for having to write this post. I feel bad because I know this post will make some of you feel bad, which is the last thing I want to do, but an issue has reached critical mass for me and I just can’t sit here feeling bad and biting my tongue anymore. So, I’m sorry if this makes you feel bad, but I just have to tell you: You use “badly” badly.*

What?!

What?!

To be fair, you’re not alone; a character on a TV show I love used “badly” incorrectly a few weeks ago. TV commentators misuse it all the time. Donald Trump did it. Really smart friends of mine whom I love dearly and who, I think, at one time knew better say “badly” when they really mean bad. I did an internet search for “feel badly” (in quotes) and found countless (good?) examples of badly being used badly.

I don’t know when or where it started but I think I understand why. We all were taught “I feel bad…” as a means of communicating feelings  (remember “I feel…when (you)…because…I want”?) but somewhere along the line someone thought, Wait a minute, “feel” is a verb, “bad” is an adjective and “badly” is an adverb, so shouldn’t I use an adverb to modify a verb? Isn’t it “badly”?**  NO. No no no no no. I’m sorry, but no. Badly does modify the verb, meaning it indicates how well you are able to feel. (Just like “I play volleyball badly” is telling you how well I am able to play volleyball.) Unfortunately, someone else heard that person using “badly” when they meant “bad” and thought, I’m going to use that from now on. And so on and so wr[on]g.

“I feel badly” means you have a difficult time feeling. “I feel badly” means that your mechanism for feeling is broken. It means you are bad at (i.e. not good at) generating feelings, when what you really mean*** is “I don’t feel good about this.” There was an episode of Home Improvement**** in which Wilson explains this to Tim, so I know the issue has been around since the ’90s, and I’m sure the confusion began well before then, but it seems like it has gotten worse in the past five to ten years. Or maybe I’ve just started noticing it more.  Either way, it has reached a  level at which I can no longer stay silent. So please, stop making me feel bad and for heaven’s sake use “bad” when you mean “bad.” Okay? Whew. I feel better.

*Not all of you. Some of you already know this (consciously or subconsciously) and are using “bad” and “badly” correctly. But, since I can’t address people on a “bad” case by case basis, here we are.

**This website explains it pretty well. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one

***At least, most of the time. Maybe sometimes you are having a hard time feeling something about a situation. In that case and only in that case is “badly” correct.

****Which I haven’t been able to find. If someone finds this for me I will send that person cookies in the mail!

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About Sarah in Small Doses

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6 responses to “I Feel Bad”

  1. gailmilstein says :

    Sorry you feel bad, but you write good (goodly?)

    Say, I have some good news for you and want to share it with you badly (correct me if I’m wrongly).

    • Sarah in Small Doses says :

      Gail, you crack me up. I’m glad you have good news (and “badly” would be fine on that second sentence). For the first sentence, I think the preferred is “well.” Or you can say “You’re a good writer.” I’ll take that any time.

  2. Suzanne Stenson O'Brien says :

    Could you next address the phrase, “I hope you are well”?

  3. Marjorie says :

    They recently talked about this on an episode of the Judge John Hodgman podcast, with a lexicographer from Merriam-Webster as a guest expert. They decided that while there’s no apparent grammatical reason why “badly” should be used in this context, it’s very well-established, dating back to the early nineteenth century, so it counts as standard usage by now. “Hope you are well” is similar, though it’s usually used to discuss health (hence “wellness”) and is a little old-fashioned now–“I’m well” would sound rather formal as a response to “how are you.”

    • Sarah in Small Doses says :

      I did see some (small) arguments for why “badly” could be used, but this is one of many instances where I dislike that usage changes grammatical rules–plenty of people use language incorrectly but I don’t like that we then cater to this misuse, especially since “I feel badly” has a separate meaning. I usually answer “I’m well” or “Good,” but not “I’m good,” even though I’ve heard that is standard usage as well, but I’m less of a stickler on that, especially since I AM good.

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