How Do You Feel?

by Cherie Tucker

If you are upset, you feel bad.  If you have Novocain in your fingers and can’t tell that you are touching the keyboard, you feel badly.  Many people confuse these two, so let’s clear this one up. (Brace yourself. There may be grammatical terminology.) 

The verbs that describe how our other senses work, e.g., taste, smell, etc., are not as easily confused.  For example, consider the sense of smell.  It is easy to differentiate someone who smells bad because he hasn’t bathed from someone who smells badly because he has a cold.  The same pattern works for the sense of taste.  You might say, “This cake tastes bad,” meaning that the flavor is off.  If you said, “This cake tastes badly,” well never mind, cakes can’t taste.

With “feel,” however, you first have to decide if you are talking about tactile feelings or emotional feelings. If you have a coin in your pocket and you can’t tell if it is a penny or a dime by just fingering it, you feel badly.  Your ability to discern something by touch is impaired.  The feeling is done badly, (which is an adverb that tells how, when, why, or where something was done).

If, on the other hand, you are upset or blue, then you feel bad. This one may take some explanation, so follow along.  In this instance you are not describing your ability to detect something by touch, you are describing your emotional feeling, which when you are blue is a bad feeling.  Here bad is an adjective, a word that describes things.  In this instance, the adjective does not come right before the word it’s describing, as adjectives regularly do.  Instead it appears in the latter part of the sentence (the predicate), after the verb “feel.”  Nevertheless, it is still an adjective, a predicate adjective (I warned you), describing how your emotions are at the moment. 

To quote from the Gregg Reference Manual, “The only way you can ‘feel badly’ is to have your fingertips removed first.”  So remember, emotionally you can feel good or bad, not goodly or badly.  


Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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