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Do I Feel Bad or Badly?

The other day a subscriber to my free monthly newsletter, Better Writing at Workwondered whether this month's "Error Quest" paragraph had two errors rather than one. Donna wrote:

Isn't there another error in the paragraph? What about "I feel bad"? Shouldn't it be "badly"? (I feel HOW? badly—an adverb.)

Maybe I am wrong, but that is how I taught it in my English classes.

Here is the sentence that made Donna wonder: "I feel bad about how the feedback was handled." 

Would you use bad or badly

I just checked to be sure the experts still agree with my view. Garner's Modern American Usage, Fowler's Modern English Usage, and The Gregg Reference Manual all agree: I feel bad–not badly.

Yes, "I feel bad about how the feedback was handled" is correct.

Feel in this instance is a linking (state of being) verb rather than an action verb. That is why it does not take the adverb form. Bad is correct with feel just as it is with these linking verbs:

  • I look bad.
  • I smell bad.
  • I sound bad.
  • I seem bad.

If it helps, think of "I feel bad" the same way you think of the expressions below. We don't use the adverb forms wonderfully, happily, proudly, or sadly in these instances:

  • I feel wonderful.
  • I feel happy.
  • I feel proud.
  • I feel sad.

Badly is correct with action verbs:

  • I sing badly.
  • I write badly. 
  • I play tennis badly. 
  • I lie badly. 

Of the many reference books in my office, the only one that supports "feel badly" is The American Heritage College Dictionary. It states:

This usage ["feel badly"] is now widespread and is supported by analogy to the use of other adverbs with feel (as in We feel strongly about this issue). In an earlier survey a majority of the Usage Panel accepted this use of badly in speech, though bad is less likely to occasion objections.

I will stick with "feel bad" although I would much rather feel good, great, terrific, and beautiful. Notice that they are all adjective forms. 

For more on bad/badly, read my 2006 blog post Bad or Badly?

I hope you are feeling great!

Syntax Training  

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

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.

7 comments on “Do I Feel Bad or Badly?”

  • I always thought “I feel badly” would mean something along the lines of “the sense of feeling in my hands does not work well.”

  • Hi, Marci. I apologize for the delay in responding. I have been away on vacation and away from computers.

    In your example, both “I don’t feel good” and “I don’t feel well” are correct. “Well” has to do with physical wellness, so it is used only in situations that have to do with physical health.

    “I don’t feel good” can be used in situations beyond wellness; for example, “I don’t feel good about this situation.”


  • Hi, Laura. Your example is one that grammarians often use to make a point about the correct use of “badly.” I can’t imagine, though, that speakers or writers would ever use “I feel badly” to communicate that meaning.

    Thanks for commenting. I apologize for the delay in responding.


  • Hi, Suparna. Yes, “I want this badly” means “I want this desperately” or “I want this very much.”

    “Desperately” has a strong emotional connotation. “Very much” says the same thing without the strong feeling.


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