Bad or Badly?

If your writing looks professional, so do you.

  • Nancy Tuten

    20 November 2017

    Bad or Badly?

    Some of the most skilled and experienced writers confuse the adjective bad with the adverb badly.

    Consider these five sentences: can you tell which of these use bad and badly appropriately?

    1. Our stock performed badly last year.
    2. Tim delegates badly.
    3. We felt badly about our stock’s performance last year.
    4. I feel badly about not calling sooner.
    5. When I visited her in the hospital, she looked badly.

    Only the first two are correct. Because badly is an adverb, it describes the manner in which an action is performed.  In the first two sentences, performing and delegating are actions, so it is appropriate to use an adverb—in this case, badly—to describe HOW they are done.

    In the last three sentences, feeling and looking are not actions but states of being; they are linking verbs, not action verbs. The correct word in each case, then, would be bad because we are NOT describing the manner in which an action is being performed.

    We use the adjective bad after the linking verbs in these two sentences to describe the subjects, the pronouns we and I. (An adjective following the linking verb is called a predicate adjective or a subject complement.)

    If we were talking about the other kind of verb to feel—the one that means to use one’s sense of touch—then we WOULD use the adverb badly because then we would be describing an action. People who have damaged the nerve endings in their fingers “feel badly” because in that context we are describing the ACTION of feeling and not the state of being that is suggested in sentences 3 and 4.

    Similarly, sentence 5 refers to looking as a state of being, and the adjective bad (the predicate adjective/subject complement) should be used to describe the subject she.  If instead we were to describe the manner in which someone gazed upon something—that is, the ACTION of looking—then “badly” would be correct: “We never found the hidden key because we looked badly.”

    “Taste” is another example of a verb that sometimes describes an action and sometimes describes a state of being. While it is possible for a person to “taste badly”—that is, to use the taste buds on one’s tongue to perform the act of sampling something—we would say that a particular food itself “tastes bad” because it cannot perform the action of tasting anything. Thus, “bad” is an adjective describing the food: “The fish tasted bad after sitting on the counter all day.”

    Bottom line: When you’re tempted to use “badly,” be sure you are describing an ACTION.

    TEST YOURSELF:

    Which word—bad or badly—belongs in each blank below?

    1. I felt ____ about eating the last slice of fruitcake.
    2. My two-year-old daughter ate her fruitcake _____, crumbling it onto the floor, mashing it in her hair, and squeezing it between her fingers before putting tiny morsels in her mouth.
    3. That fruitcake didn’t taste as ____ as I thought it would.
    4. Right after he ate the fruitcake, he looked ____ and ran out of the room quickly.
    5. He made her feel ____ when he told her how ____ she cooks.
    ANSWERS
    1. I felt BAD about eating the last slice of fruitcake. [Here “feel” is a linking verb, not an action verb.]
    2. My two-year-old daughter ate her fruitcake BADLY, crumbling it onto the floor, mashing it in her hair, and squeezing it between her fingers before putting tiny morsels in her mouth. [Here “ate” IS an action verb.]/i>
    3. That fruitcake didn’t taste as BAD as I thought it would. [The fruitcake did not perform the action of tasting.]
    4. Right after he ate the fruitcake, he looked BAD and ran out of the room quickly. [Here “looking” describes a state of being, not the action of gazing upon something.]
    5. He made her feel BAD when he told her how BADLY she cooks. [“Feeling” in this context is not an action, but “cooking” is.]

    Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2018.