James Brown, the soul music legend, was renowned for the song, I Feel Good, a tune written by Naomi Neville.
Undoubtedly, neither Brown nor Neville expected to be the focus of a grammar lesson. However, the song offers a perfect illustration of correct usage, one a recent guest on CBC Radio hadn’t learned.
The woman, whose name I can’t recall, was showing her empathy for someone’s misfortune, saying something along the lines of “I feel badly that he has had such a hard life.”
Her sentiments were admirable, but her grammar was not. As Brown could probably point out, she really meant, “I feel bad.”
Badly is an adverb that modifies an action verb. If feel is used as an action verb, it refers to the act of feeling. If someone asks you, “How do you feel?” and you reply that you feel badly, you are actually saying that you aren’t very good at absorbing the sensations that occur when touching an object. Perhaps the nerve endings in your hand are damaged!
Feel can also serve as a linking verb, however, referring to the state of your emotions. Linking verbs are modified by adjectives. If you want to express your upset, you would choose the adjective and say that you feel bad.
Remember, James Brown didn’t sing, “I feel goodly.” Here’s hoping that when it comes time to make the choice between an action verb/adverb combination or a linking verb/adjective pairing in the future, you won’t choose badly!