Student Stumper 13: Feel Bad or Feel Badly?

QUESTION: Should we say I feel bad or I feel badly?

ANSWER: This question was actually posed by another English teacher. We challenged ourselves to come up with a clear explanation for students. To begin, it’s necessary to understand the sources of confusion.  The first problem is that native speakers themselves frequently consider feel bad and feel badly interchangeable. The second problem arises when comparisons are made. One could argue, for example, that it’s acceptable to say either I don’t feel good or I don’t feel well, so why aren’t the two phrases feel bad and feel badly equivalent?

The first thing to clarify is the fact that grammar rules and actual language use don’t always run parallel. Without using the terms prescriptive and descriptive grammar, we can simply tell students that it’s technically correct to say only feel bad; however, use of feel badly will occur. I’d advise students to use the correct form in their own speech, yet they should be prepared to hear the incorrect form and accept its meaning to be equivalent. (No one saying I feel badly is really referring to a poor sense of touch.)

The second thing to clarify is the part(s) of speech. Start with the likely comparison with feel good and feel well. We need to explain that well is very often used as an adverb, but it can also be used as an adjective. (Dictionaries will confirm this for the skeptics, as will any greeting card supplier with a Get Well Soon collection.) This means that well or good can be used to describe how one is feeling physically. When speaking of our health, it’s fine to say I don’t feel good or I don’t feel well. In contrast, badly is an adverb and only an adverb. The adjective is bad. To describe how sorry we feel for someone or how remorseful we feel about something we did, we can only say I feel bad.


I feel bad for Ann because her boyfriend is cheating on her.

The boyfriend feels bad about lying to her, but he didn’t want to upset her with the truth.

If necessary, you can always draw a second comparison to the use of happy. We can say I feel happy [adjective] about my decision, but it would be incorrect to say I feel happily [adverb] about my decision.

Grammar rules explain why only the adjectives are correct in the phrases feel happy and feel bad. In those sentences, we’re using feel as a linking verb the adjectives are complements. [Subject + linking verb + complement] We are using feel to describe a state not an action. Happy and bad describe my emotions not my actions.

It may be helpful to give examples showing when the adverb badly is the appropriate word choice:

Ann badly wanted the lies to be the truth, so she believed them.

Ann began to do badly in school because she was so upset with her boyfriend.

Here we don’t have a linking verb, and we are using the adverb to describe the degree of wanting and the manner of doing (an action). These uses of badly are correct.

All right. That should suffice. The distinction between feel bad and feel badly has been made clear. But for those who really want to explore this topic in depth, there’s one more use of feel + adverb I’d like to discuss (at the risk of making myself confused all over again):

I feel strongly that people should be honest in their relationships.

The sentence above is correct, isn’t it? Feel is not being used in a dynamic sense and strongly is not a complement. Isn’t confusing that feel badly is incorrect to describe an emotional state but feel strongly is correct to describe a belief? Neither is using feel in a dynamic sense. If inquisitive students asked about the comparison between feel badly and feel strongly, would it be safe to give a guideline concerning the use of adverbs when expressing beliefs and opinions? Wouldn’t you agree that all the following statements are correct?

“Please don’t think badly of me, Ann,” pleaded the boyfriend.

I think highly of people who can admit the truth, even when it puts them in an unfavorable light.

I firmly believe that honesty is the best policy.

I feel adamantly that the truth must be told.




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