Bad vs. Badly

By Mark Nichol

I don’t want to make you feel bad, but because so many writers handle this issue badly, I’m going to discuss the use of bad and badly.

Let’s start with badly, which is an adverb. Roughly speaking, an adverb describes how something is done: “She handled the news badly.” Bad, on the other hand, is most familiar to us as an adjective, but what stymies us sometimes is that it can also be an adverb.

In adjectival form, bad provides detail about the noun it accompanies: “I have a bad feeling about this.” As an adverb, bad modifies the preceding verb: “Now I don’t feel so bad about it.”

If you’re in doubt about which adverbial form to use, test it by replacing badly (or is it bad?) with a synonym, such as poorly. (“She handled the news poorly.”) That looks and sounds right. But would poor work? (“She handled the news poor.”) Definitely not; the form badly is correct.

Now test the sentence that uses the adverbial form of bad: “Now I don’t feel too poorly about it,” or “Now I don’t feel too poor about it”? Hmm — I’m not sure. So I’ll try another synonym: “Now I don’t feel too wretchedly about it,” or “Now I don’t feel too wretched about it”? The short form is the clear winner here.

But why? What’s different about the two adverbial forms? The issue is complicated by the fact that two types of verbs exist: action verbs and linking verbs. Handled, in the first example above, is an action verb because she handled — she did something. Linking verbs, on the other hand, describe a state of being: I think, therefore I am.

One set of verbs that can perform both functions — action and linking — are the sense verbs, including feel. (The others are look, smell, and taste; I’ll discuss the omission of hear later.)

The sentence “I feel the breeze” refers to an action; your body is responding to the breeze. If you are unable to feel the breeze because your skin is not sensitive, you could say, “I feel the breeze badly,” in the sense that your body is ineffective at feeling the breeze. (This usage is awkward and therefore rare, but it is correct.)

However, if you’re using feel in the linking, or state-of-being, sense, feel refers to your emotions, not your tactile ability. If you have asked someone to join you on a walk, and the person is bothered by a strong breeze that suddenly whips up, causing some distress — oops, there goes the hat! — you could say, “I feel bad about the breeze.”

Wouldn’t badly work just as well? Apply the synonym test: “I feel wretchedly about the breeze.” Clunk. “I feel wretched about the breeze.” Click.

That explains why you want something bad, not badly. (To want something badly is to do a poor job of wanting it — almost the opposite meaning.) That’s why you’re not doing too bad, rather than badly, right now. Bad is a condition (a linking verb), not a performance (an action verb).

So, why isn’t hear an action verb, like its sensory siblings? You can write, “That feels disgusting” and substitute feels with looks, smells, and tastes, but “That hears disgusting” doesn’t make sense; we replace hears with sounds in such constructions.” Why is this so? I can only give you my stock answer for such curiosities: It’s English.

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17 Responses to “Bad vs. Badly”

  • jaxbees

    Yep! I love the fact that English is so quirky, all that history making odd language decisions for us. I think the use of ‘bad’ when it should be ‘badly’ may have come from colloquial American English. My nephews and nieces moved to the US a few years ago and with a strong Welsh accent (much to my amusement), say things like, ‘real bad’, when strictly speaking it should be ‘badly’. That said, I’m all for speaking differently to how we write -I’d always say, ‘dice’ for example, singular or plural, far too pretentious to say, ‘die’ – in my humble opinion! Great post.

  • Connie Oswald Stofko

    Thanks so much for writing this piece. I hear so many people get this one wrong, and you know it’s only because they’re trying so hard to get it right! These are the people who say things like, “She gave the book to Tim and I.” They somehow overreach.

  • Brian Meeks

    Really helpful article. I am often uncomfortably with bad and badly, so I try to avoid it in my writings. Actually, I avoid it when speaking too. I’ve also noticed that some people use ‘well’ correctly (as in…I am well), but then use ‘well’ when they should be using ‘good’ in other sentences. It is as if they are so concerned about making the mistake that they don’t learn the rule, just assume ‘good’ is always wrong.

  • Stephanie

    Oh, this reminds me of that last scene in You’ve Got Mail when Meg Ryan says “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.”
    That ALWAYS bothered me. Now I know I was right. Thank you.

  • Amazing Blair

    Your article was a model of clarity! I admit I have thought, when hearing “I want it bad”, ‘Shouldn’t that be badly?’ But it never SOUNDED right. Or even rightly. 🙂

    You have cleared up my confusion and added to the amount of Order in the universe. Well done, Mark.

    -Amazing Blair

  • John White

    Yes, thanks for a very clear article.

    Monty Python used this nuance to comic effect in their skit about the fatal joke that helped win WWII. All English soldiers were instructed to recite this joke in German in any confrontation with Wehrmacht soldiers:

    “My dog’s nose fell off.”
    “Really? How does he smell, then?”
    “Terrible!”

    The German soldiers immediately died laughing, which soon brought the war to an end. Guess that means they have linking verbs in German as well.

  • Roberta B.

    An action verb can be transitive (as one requring an object – e.g., “handled”) or intransitive (no object – e.g., “danced”). Linking verbs convey information about the subject – to be, to become, to seem…………but also include sensory verbs. I had to re-read this one, but get it now. In general, it is acceptable and even sounds better to describe (modify) a linking verb with the short form of adverb.

  • Terry

    You see? Now there you. I learn so much from reading these articles. Now I can talk more gooder than most folk.

  • AnWulf

    Except that the -ly ending is, in truth, the latecomer.

    Am. football fans all know the expression “Go deep!”
    How about “fly direct”?
    “Eat fresh.”

    As far as I’m concerned, any adverb can be flat … it only grates on pedantic ears … not mine.

    Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, quotes Pepys: “I was horrid angry”, Defoe: “the weather was so violent hot”, and that ardent language reformer Jonathan Swift: “the five ladies were monstrous fine”.

    It’s not something I worry about.

  • drew

    That explains why you want something bad, not badly.

    Name one source that agrees with you on this.

    Adverbs in idiomatic speech have been losing out to their adjectival forms for a long time now and I don’t think the shift is slowing.

    To want something badly is to want it very much. Badly is used as an intensifier. But to want something ‘bad’ means, get this, exactly the same thing because that’s the way people use it.

    You’re right that there’s a useful distinction between ‘I smell bad’ (because I haven’t had a shower today) and ‘I smell badly’ (because I have a cold and my nose isn’t working).

    But dropping the -ly off adjectives is an idiomatic phenomenon where the intended meaning is the same as if the suffix were still in place.

    “You done good” and “you did well” mean exactly the same thing. You could argue that only the latter is gramatically correct (and the pedants and peevers take great delight in doing so) but depending on context and the social and geographical background of the speaker, the former may well be a more common usage.

    It’s important to remember that there isn’t just one English, but many Englishes. And it’s not about being right; it’s about being understood.

  • Melissa

    I feel bad about criticizing an article that speaks to one of my pet peeves (“feel badly”), but as a teacher of grammar I must point out that there is no such thing as “two adverbial forms.” Action verbs take adverbs. Linking verbs take a predicate adjective, so “bad” in “I feel bad,” “good” in “That tastes good,” and “terrible” in “She looks terrible” are all still adjectives. With one exception, your usage is correct, but your explanation created an unnecessary new wrinkle in already complicated English grammar.

    That exception? The usage may have been originally idiomatic, but the dictionary has long listed “to a great or intense degree (want something ~)” as a meaning for the adverb “badly.” Meg Ryan was perfectly correct in accepted English usage; it’s “want it bad” that is nonstandard.

  • robin

    Thank you all because I have always wanted to know which is correct ie: Want it so bad vs badly….or important vs importantly (of which I am still confused). I still hear in my subconscious badly and importantly. I believe it is an age thing as I am 51 and most people my age tend to use the ly more often than not.

  • Jim

    You had me until the second last paragraph about “wanting something bad”. Your discussion is clearly incorrect and doesn’t match the logic of the preceding discussion. I agree with Melissa that in this context, badly does not mean poorly, it means intensely.

    Otherwise, thanks for a nice discussion.

  • sumon

    Can we use “but and because ” together ? I know these are transitional words …” but because so many writers handle this issue badly, I’m going to discuss the use of bad and badly.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Sumon:

    Yes, “. . . but because so many writers . . .” is fine.

  • TopGun

    @ Mark Nichol
    Thank you.
    But not everything is correct.
    “to want smth. bad”?

    It MUST be “badly”, not “bad”. In accordance to the rules of English. Instead of hypothetical comparison which is close to Sophism, you could apply the real regulations of the language.

    What is correct? bad or badly in this sentence:”You looked ______ bruised after being punched” The correct answer is badly which states the degree. In this case you can interchange it with a synonym, such as “extremely”.
    The same meaning it has in the sentence: I wanted it so badly. (not bad)! “Badly” is an adverb which indicates the measurement. All it is so because you applied knowledge of colloquial American language.

  • Warsaw Will

    I have no real objection to “want something bad” in informal English, but it has nothing to do with “bad” being a condition. In the expression “I feel bad”, “feel” is a linking verb and bad refers to the subject, so the adjective is correctly used. But that doesn’t work in “I want something bad” – “bad” is referring to wanting, not to me. In formal grammar it has to be “badly”.

    If you badly miss somebody, it doesn’t mean you’re not good at missing them, it means you miss them a lot – and it’s the same with wanting something badly.

    The difference here is entirely one of formality:
    “To want something very badly” – more formal, Standard English
    “To want something real bad” – informal, colloquial English (some might say non-standard) – and of course it’s this second form that’s often used in songs etc

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