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  • Writer's pictureS. H. Salois

Am I Feeling Bad or Badly?

And how can I tell?

Image by PDPics from Pixabay

Someone asked me a grammar question recently that I thought would be worth discussing. But first, I have to say I get ridiculously excited when someone asks me a grammar or punctuation question. Seriously, I’m like Commander Data scanning for lifeforms on Star Trek TNG, I’m that tickled.

But on to the question: How do you know when to say something like I feel bad rather than I feel badly?

The main issues here are (a) those pesky linking verbs and (b) knowing when to use adjectives or adverbs.

Quick reminder: adjectives modify or describe nouns while adverbs modify verbs, other adverbs, adjectives, or even whole sentences.

Now, linking verbs are different from other verbs because they do not express action. Instead, they “link” the subject of the verb to more information about the subject, known as a subject complement:

Data is an android.

Data is happy to scan for lifeforms.

Notice the linking verb is connecting information about the subject to the subject.

Data = android

Data = happy

A subject complement is either an adjective, a noun, or a pronoun.

In the first example above, the subject complement is a noun (android). In the second example, the subject complement is an adjective (happy).

He is Data. Pronoun (He) is Noun (Data).

The problem

Some linking verbs are called true linking verbs because they are always linking verbs.

All forms of the verb “to be” are linking verbs, always and forever: am, is, are, was, were, has been, are being, might have been, and so on.

“To become” and “to seem” are also true linking verbs and are always linking verbs.

The problem is that there are these other verbs that are sometimes linking verbs and sometimes not. Sometimes they are action verbs instead, expressing action. Remember, adverbs modify verbs, right?

But not linking verbs. Linking verbs give you one piece of information: something IS something. It does not express action. With a linking verb, the subject is in a state of being, you could say.

Some of these sometimes linking/sometimes action verbs are appear, feel, grow, look, prove, remain, smell, sound, taste, and turn.

Well, that’s confusing, no? Ha, welcome to English.

But really, how can you tell the difference? Don’t worry; it’s not that hard, and there’s a trick you can use.

The trick

The trick: If you can substitute any form of “to be” for the verb and the sentence is still logical and grammatical, you probably have a linking verb on your hands.

Is this correct?

The dog smells bad; he needs a bath.

The dog is bad.

Poor dog. So judgy, these humans. However, the sentence makes sense, and it is logical, so “smells bad” is correct. Here, “smells” is linking information about the dog to the subject. “Bad” is an adjective. “Badly” is an adverb.

Incorrect: The dog smells badly.

The test: The dog is badly.


Let’s say the dog has an impaired sense of smell. He can’t tell roast beef from broccoli. He smells badly. In this case, “smells” is an action verb. The dog is actively sniffing and smelling something (or not).

Let’s try another one.

I could see the cat felt bad.

I could see the cat felt badly.

Let’s test it.

The cat was bad.

The cat was badly.

In this case, “felt” is serving as a linking verb, so the word after it will be a subject complement (modifying the subject in some way, remember). “Bad” is correct, and we know this because it sounds logical when we substitute “was”: The cat was bad.

The test might not always work well, and then you will need to use your own logic to reason it out. Take this sentence, for example:

She appears happily married.

Let’s try the “to be” substitution to test this:

She is happily married.

Well, that makes sense, but isn’t happily an adverb?

Why, yes! Yes, it is, you smart thing, you!

The issue is that “happily” is modifying “married.” She’s not just married, she’s happily married. Yay!

Remember adverbs can modify adjectives, too. “Married” is an adjective describing her state of being (a subject complement). “Happily” is giving us more information about “married.”

Let’s try a few more

He smelled bad after his run.

He smelled badly after his run.

Did you test it?

He is bad after his run.

He is badly after his run.

The first one works although it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. However, the key here is that it does work grammatically. The first one is correct. “Smell” is a linking verb here, so it requires an adjective rather than an adverb.

I feel bad that you got lost.

I feel badly that you got lost.

Test it:

I am bad….

I am badly….

The first one is correct. “Feel” is a linking verb here and requires an adjective.

Here’s one that might trip you up.

That type of shrub grows quick.

That type of shrub grows quickly.

The first one doesn’t make sense if you test it as a linking verb.

That type of shrub is quick.

However, you might think, “Well, it works, right?”

It does, so you may have to go a little deeper when thinking about this one.

“Grows” in this case is expressing action: to grow, the act of growing. That means the adverb form is correct here because it’s modifying “grows”: grows quickly.

Unless it really is a fast-moving shrub, in which case, just get out the way.

The takeaways

When deciding between words like “bad” and “badly,” think about what the word is modifying or describing. Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Adjectives describe nouns.

If you can tell what the modifier is describing, determine if you are working with a linking verb, in which case the modifier is describing the subject. Something is something/something = something.

That's all I have for you today. Begone with your bad self.

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