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What is the correct usage? Apparently it is "I feel badly", but but wouldn't that mean you have an inadequate ability to feel?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Assuming you're talking about a situation where something bad has happened to your friend, and you're saying you feel unhappy on their behalf, then "I feel bad for you" is correct.

You are right that "I feel badly" would mean you are having difficulty in feeling at all - which would be a rather unusual thing to say :)

In general the verb "to feel" will take an adjective (happy, sad, good, bad, angry, relieved) after it to indicate the feeling, rather than an adverb.

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So, in most cases, "I feel bad" would be correct? Is there a use for "I feel badly" except for when saying you are unable to feel at all? –  awesomeguy Apr 10 '11 at 21:44
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@awesomeguy: The word "badly" can be used as an intensifier, so "I feel badly in need of a drink" means that you really really need one. (This is where @Emre's suggestion that it could just about mean "I am attracted to you" comes from: it would mean not just "I feel for you", but "I feel for you, a lot" - but it ends up sounding a little strange and awkward, hence the "teen-speak" comment :). But saying "I feel badly" on its own (without specifying what you feel) sounds very strange. –  psmears Apr 10 '11 at 22:05
    
Semantically, there is no issue here. The idea is that you have a bad feeling. Neither the adverb, nor the adjective are perfectly accurate. "I feel bad" puts the bad property onto you (contrast with "I feel inadequate") and "I feel badly" puts it onto feel, rather than the feeling. (Can you even separate the feeling state from the feeling action?) In some languages, it is grammatical to use an adverb. The point is that semantics cannot provide a satisfactory explanation why the chosen syntax is adverb versus adjective. It's just the way it is. –  Kaz Apr 26 '12 at 3:15

"I feel badly for you" sounds like teen-speak for "I am attracted to you". You probably meant "I feel bad for you".

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Badly is an adverb and explains how something was done.

She was hurt badly.

Bad is an adjective and describes a noun.

She is a bad driver.

Since the word being modified is "feel" (a verb), the proper modifier is "badly" (an adverb).

This is essentially the same as the difference between using "good" and "well".

  • I feel well.
  • I am in good health.

Well modifies the verb feel while good modifies the noun health.

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In my case I am using badly as a verb. I feel badly for her. Am I correct? –  Linda M. Powers Apr 26 '12 at 2:10
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No. In "I feel badly for her", "badly" is an adverb and so it modifies "feel". –  Kaz Apr 26 '12 at 3:05
    
That's right, Kaz. –  elimac82 May 1 '12 at 2:36
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"I feel good" is perfectly grammatical. There's even a song every person on this planet can sing along. At any rate it's completely off-topic here, and in fact there's a separate question for "good" vs. "well". So I recommend simply removing that bit as you're just shooting yourself in the foot here. –  RegDwigнt May 1 '12 at 8:42
    
As well as what Reg says - feel is a copula in I feel good (or I feel well) so joins an adjective to a person. –  Matt Эллен May 1 '12 at 9:53

You cannot use badly as a verb. It will always be an adverb. In those two sentences, feel is your verb, which links an adjective (in this case bad) to the subject. Badly would be used to describe how something was done.

I feel bad for her.

She was hurt badly.

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I have a sense that "I feel badly" is acceptable. Native English speakers use this, who are not of low intelligence or poorly educated.

It's clear that either way, the semantic idea is that the speaker is experiencing an uncomfortable feeling.

A feeling is abstract: it can be regarded as a state or something that is happening. We don't really know what it is other than through subjective experience.

The linguistic tools for expressing it briefly (not using circuitous language like "I am experiencing an uncomfortable feeling") boil down to using an adjective or adverb: bad or badly.

Neither of these choices is a perfect fit.

"I feel bad" maps the "bad" adjective onto the speaker. So if "I feel stupid" means "I feel that I am stupid" then "I feel bad" should mean "I think that I am bad". But it doesn't.

"I feel badly" maps the "bad" onto the feeling regarded as an action that is going on. This is imperfect also. ("I feel badly" versus "I drive badly".) But there are also: "Think badly of someone" or "Speak badly of someone". The arguments against "feel badly" must take into account such examples also.

Neither choice precisely pins the badness onto the involutarily experienced emotional situation.

But between these two choices, representing the badness as an attribute of the feeling-action (necessarily an adverb) seems semantically cleaner than as an attribute of the noun (adjective) denoting the subject who is experiencing the feeling (involuntarily, at that). The feeling-action is closer to the meaning.

This is probably why some people use the "feel badly" construction; it seems to them that "I feel bad" is like "I feel that I am bad", but "feel badly" is like "think badly": having a negative feeling analogus to having a negative thought.

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No, to feel is like to smell or to taste: it takes an adjective complement. One smells bad means that one has a bad smell, that one stinks. One smells badly means that one has a poor sense of smell, that one does not detect odors as well as someone else does. To feel badly means you don’t have a properly functioning sentiment, or some such. I feel bad that you don’t see this; I certainly don’t *feel badly about it. –  tchrist Apr 26 '12 at 4:32
    
Yes, so neither "one smells bad" and "one smells badly" expresses the idea "one experiences a bad smell". That's related to my point. If one of these two syntaxes had to carry that meaning, I would reluctantly have to pick "one smells badly" over "one smells bad". –  Kaz Apr 26 '12 at 4:38
    
No, it doesn’t work that way. If a sewer smells bad and you smell its stench, you cannot say either that you smell bad or that you smell badly; neither applies. You are simply smelling a bad smell, because you smell perfectly well. –  tchrist Apr 26 '12 at 4:47

Certain verbs like feel, smell, and taste take adjectives as complements, not adverbs. If you use an adverb with them, it changes the sense altogether, because it now modifies the verb rather than serving as a predicate complement describing the subject.

  • Sour milk tastes bad. Honey tastes good.
  • I feel bad that I didn’t go. I feel good about that.
  • Those flowers smell good. That sewer smells bad.

Contast with:

  • He tastes poorly because he’s burnt his tongue.
  • My fingers feel badly when I have gloves on.
  • A man with no nose smells poorly if at all.

So you can have a dog that smells bad but like all dogs, he nonetheless smells well.

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I think you can substitute the word sad for the word bad and it is then easier to get a better understanding of the use for bad. Clear?

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