Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Sort of Thing That Gives Grammar a Bad Name

We received this complaint in our e-mail today. A grammar quiz asked readers which was correct: "I feel bad" or "I feel badly." A reader insists we gave the wrong answer. He writes:
"'I feel badly' is the correct answer, as feel is a verb and requires an adverb."
This is what we wrote in the answer of the quiz. Perhaps he didn't read that far along:
So many people misuse bad and badly that it may seem like nitpicking to point out the distinction in usage. But to feel badly (or awfully for that matter) literally means to touch or handle something in a clumsy fashion. Use badly, an adverb, only to describe an action. Use bad, an adjective, to describe a condition or a passive state of being--such as feeling.
"Adverbs modify verbs" is one of those rules that some people cling to as if life depended on it. But there is a certain type of verb, called the linking verb, that connects a modifier to the subject. The subject is not a verb; it is a noun. What's interesting is that most people get this in other contexts. You don't see anyone having a cow at the expression, "I feel blue." No one would argue we must say "I feel bluely" to be correct. And yet, with "I feel good" and "I feel bad," there are legions of people who insist those usages are barbaric.

They're not. Truly.

Likewise, the fact that there are a few examples of hypercorrection does not prove that all rules of grammar are for rigid ninnies. Just as traffic rules keep us safe on the road (and in some cases, safely on the road), and just as having rules for sports keep the contest interesting, rules of language help us communicate clearly and artistically with each other. Those things are worth protecting. Think of that on March 4!

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