Grammar Guerilla: Kirk Douglas On “Feel Bad” v “Feel Badly” And More Feelings

Thanks to H. H. Fowler’s reincarnation on Twitter for this very clear explanation of the distinction between an adverb and an adjective:

Kirk Douglas is right. Badly is an adverb. To “feel badly” means that one’s sense perception is damaged. To “feel bad” means that one is experiencing a subjective state of sadness.

There is another matter here, however, and that is the verb “to feel.” When asked, “How do you feel?” my inimitable High School English teacher, Mrs Keller, answered, “with my fingers.” She was trying to teach us to ask, “How are you?” The correct answer is, “I am well” or “I am ill.”By the way, the correct answer is not “good.” You are not good. Our Lord said, ““Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).

Keller had a point. In our Late Modern age, we now turn reflexively to therapeutic categories. Jay Adams used to complain too about substituting the verb to feel for the verb to think: “Your honor, I feel that testimony should be allowed” is less accurate than “Your honor, I think that testimony should be allowed.” In a given case, how one feels, i.e., one’s emotional experience, is irrelevant. What matters is what one thinks. As an aside, for the sake of economy, we might even omit the verb “think.” If the lawyer is telling the judge that evidence should be admitted then, to verb “to think” is filler.

Still, Keller’s objection raises a question. Is there an equivalent for the verb feel when it signals to experience, besides that word. “I experience bad” does not work. Not only does it sound like something a non-English speaker would say but it is unclear. We know that “I feel bad” denotes a subjective state. “I experience bad” might mean that a ton of bricks is about to fall on one’s head. Perhaps one might say, “I am sad” or “that makes me sad.”  Those are equivalent expressions but they are not obviously superior to “I feel bad.”

We should, however, keep an eye on the verb to feel as it tends to crowd out better alternatives:

  • You will feel some pain. Experience and sense and are good alternatives in more formal settings.
  • She feels that she should not have received a ticket. Thinks or believes or even reckons or considers are better.

As a rule, using a formal verb in an informal setting makes a sentence seem stilted. Using an informal verb (e.g., feels) in a formal setting or to the exclusion of alternatives makes the writer seem ill educated. If the verb calls attention to itself, it may be the wrong one.

There are three pressures to recognize regarding the verb to feel, first is the subjective turn of late modernity. It manifests itself in the dominance of therapeutic categories (the language of emotional experience). The second is closely related and that is the power of the language of affect. A sentence that begins with the verb to think must be resolved by some claim about what is. This requires research and logical arguments. As a substitute the language of affect is not only inadequate but lazy. It is attractive, however, because it is irrefutable. One is able to contest claims of fact or the logic. Claims about subjective emotional experience, however, cannot be refuted and when the latter reigns, the attraction of affect is almost resistible. Third, like the American public school experience, social media has a leveling effect. Think of the people who inevitably appear in “man on the street” interviews. I am thinking particularly of those who cannot tell the interviewer who is the sitting Vice President of the United States. These pillars of intellectual curiosity not only vote but they and their ilk create a leveling pressure that flattens rhetoric and shrinks our vocabulary.

As the fellow on the internet says: resist. There are alternatives to the verb to feel. Take two in the morning and let me know how you feel.


One comment

  1. I’m an elder in a church in the UK that has a large US population due to its proximity to USAF bases. ‘How are you?’ is of course a common greeting here as well, and the usual answer from our American friends is ‘good’ or ‘I’m good’. I sometimes tease them (provided I know them well enough to see the funny side) that I was actually asking about their health, not making enquiry into their moral state.

    But this ‘good’ is so pervasive in American English that one wonders whether it has simply been outside grammatical constraints for so long that it has become established as acceptable (in American English) as a response. To give another common example, when a Brit asks an American whether he (or his child) would like another serving of food or drink it is common to receive the reply ‘I’m good’ or or ‘He’s good’ or ‘We’re good’ to indicate that they have had sufficient. The first time this is encountered it is confusing for a Brit (who would expect ‘Thank you, but we’ve had sufficient’ or similar), but the confusion will not persist when encountered multiple times, because we quickly learn: for ‘We’re good’ understand ‘We’ve had enough’.

    My observation is thus that the adjective ‘good’ is used by Americans as shorthand for ‘in good [condition]’, where the condition is to be inferred by the context, rather than stated, as in ‘I’m in good health’. Where the particular condition is unstated then the ‘in’ must disappear as well. After all, more ‘wellness’ would normally be inferred than health in the enquiry, ‘How are you?’ We soon learn that the American response ‘I’m good’ effectively means ‘I’m in good condition in those states you are likely enquiring about’. In other words, ‘I’m well’.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law. Comments that are profane, deny the gospel, advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession, or irritate the management are subject to deletion. Anonymous comments, posted without permission, are forbidden.