Bad or Badly?

"I would feel bad if I treated you badly."

That’s an illustration of the correct use of the words bad and badly.

Bad/badly is a grammar point that trips up many of us. Even people who are very careful about their speech and writing are confused about those two words. They say "feel badly," which is incorrect.

Here are the rules and examples.

With the verb feel, use adjective forms, like these:

Sarah feels confident. (not confidently)
Vic feels happy. (not happily)
Kwame feels proud. (not proudly)
Mina feels bad. (not badly)

In the examples above, the word after feels describes the subject: confident Sarah, happy Vic, proud Kwame, bad Mina. (It’s as though Mina is blaming herself: "Bad Mina!")

With action verbs, use adverb forms, like these:

Sarah smiled confidently.
Vic sang happily.
Kwame stood proudly.
Mina typed badly.

When you hear someone say "I feel badly," don’t correct him or her. That would be rude and the person might take the correction badly. Instead kindly ask, "Why do you feel bad?" or respond, "I’m sorry you feel bad." I use this subtle approach with my 11-year-old daughter all the time, and she doesn’t feel bad about it at all.

Send your grammar questions. I will be happy to respond.

Lynn

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Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact. A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors. A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media. Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Mary, the correct choice is “I want to see you badly.” That is because “want” is an action verb.

    If you are writing rock music lyrics, write what works for the rhyme, meter, and audience.

    Lynn

  2. Can you explain: Sam felt bad, but he felt badly for hurting his hand. How would you explain the usage of bad and badly?

  3. Hi Carol. Perhaps you mean he could not feel with his hand because he had damaged it. Then why not say he has limited ability to feel with his hand? It would be quite unusual to say he “felt badly.”

    Lynn

  4. but why do people use the sentence”i miss you so bad”?i googled it and have seen a lot of this sentence.it made me get confused.or most people use it in the wrong way?

    ps thank you for your reply

  5. Keith, using “bad” as an adverb (as in “I miss you so bad”) is common in informal speech and writing. However, in formal writing, “badly” is the right choice when you need an adverb.

    Lynn

Comments are closed.