Bad vs. Badly

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  • Nancy Tuten

    20 November 2017

    Bad vs. Badly

    Even skilled writers sometimes get confused about when to use the adjective bad and the adverb badly.

    Which of These Sentences 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.

    Badly is an adverb, so it can describe the manner in which an action is performed.  In the first two sentences, performing and delegating are action verbs, so it is appropriate to use an adverb—in this case, badly—to describe how the stocks performed and how Tim delegates.


    In the last three sentences, feeling and looking are not actions but states of being; while in other contexts to feel and to look can be action verbs, they are linking verbs in these sentences, not action verbs.

    The correct choice in each of these sentences would be the adjective bad, not the adverb badly, because we are not describing the manner in which an action is being performed.

    It Helps to Understand Linking Verbs and Subject Complements

    Linking verbs connect (link) the subject of a clause to a word that either renames it (a predicate noun) or describes it (a predicate adjective).  We call those words subject complements. (That’s complement with an e, as in completer: the subject complement completes the subject.)

    The most common linking verb is to be (is, am, was, were, have been, has been, etc.).

    In the sentence “I am the teacher,” the subject I is linked to the predicate noun teacher. Think “I = teacher.”

    In the sentence “She is kind,” the subject she is linked to the predicate adjective kind. Think “She = kind.”

    One way to identify a linking verb is to ask if it could be replaced by a form of the verb to be. The sentence “Sally feels fortunate,” for example, expresses almost the same meaning as “Sally is fortunate.” Think “Sally = fortunate.” We would never say “Sally feels fortunately” or “Sally is fortunately.”

    Action Verbs Differ from Linking Verbs

    Action verbs do not link; they show two kinds of action:

    • Sometimes a subject is simply engaging in an action, as in the sentence “The boy was walking.” When the subject is performing the action but nothing is getting acted upon, the verb is intransitive.
    • At other times, the subject is engaging in the action and something or someone else in the sentence is the recipient (direct object) of that action, as in the sentence “The boy was walking the dog.” Here dog is the direct object, the recipient of the action walking. The dog “got verbed”—or, in this case, “got walked.” When something/someone in the sentence is receiving the action of the verb, the verb is transitive.

    With a linking verb, we can think “subject = subject complement,” but with a transitive action verb, the subject does not equal the direct object; in our most recent example, for example, it makes no sense to say “boy = dog.”

    Subject Complements Will Never Be Adverbs

    Subjects are always nouns (or noun substitutes, such as pronouns, gerunds, or noun clauses—but that’s a conversation for a different post). Because adjectives modify nouns, it makes sense that a complement describing the subject (as opposed to renaming it) would be an adjective, not an adverb.

    In the first two sentences in the quiz at the top of this article, then, we use the adjective bad after the linking verbs to describe the subjects—the pronouns we and I.

    The Verb To Feel Can Have Different Meanings

    People who would never say “Simon is badly” are nonetheless inclined to say “Simon feels badly” largely because they have forgotten that the verb to feel in this context is not an action verb but a linking verb.

    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 the tips of their fingers “feel badly”; that is, they are engaging in the act of feeling. But in sentences 3 and 4 in the quiz above, felt and feeling describe states of being, not actions.

    In sentence 5, looking refers to a state of being, not to an action, so we should choose the adjective bad (the predicate adjective/subject complement) to describe the subject she.

    If instead we were describing the manner in which someone gazed upon something—that is, the act of looking—then badly would be correct: “We never found the keys that were sitting in plain sight on the counter because we looked badly.”

    All Verbs Related to the Senses Can Be Tricky

    To feel is not the only problem verb when it comes to the use of bad and badly. All the verbs of the senses—to taste, to smell, to sound, and to look—can also be tricky.

    To taste, for example, sometimes describes an action and sometimes describes a state of being. Consider these two sentences, both of which are correct:

    • My tongue tastes badly today because I burned it while eating hot pizza last night. [Here the tongue is engaged in the act of tasting the speaker’s food, but because it was damaged the night before, it is doing a poor job.]
    • Since I burned the pizza, it tastes bad. [Think: pizza = bad or "pizza is bad.” There is no action in the clause "it tastes bad.”]

    It is possible for the verb to taste to be an action verb—that is, to describe the action of using the taste buds on one’s tongue to perform the act of sampling the flavor of something. Such is the case in the first example above: tongue is the subject and it is performing the action of tasting. Because the tongue was burned the night before, we use an adverb to describe how it performs that action: badly.

    But the verb to taste can also be a linking verb, as is the case in the second sentence. Here the burned pizza tastes bad because it isn’t performing any action at all; obviously, the pizza does not have a tongue, and it is not tasting anything. The pizza simply is bad.  The adjective bad describes the pizza.

    Bottom Line

    When tempted to use badly, be sure you are describing an action and not a state of being.

    The Trick

    Before using badly, ask yourself if you would use goodly.  The person who thinks nothing of saying (incorrectly) “I feel badly about my mistake” would never say “I feel goodly about my interview this morning.”

    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. She made him feel ____ when she told him how ____ he cooks.
    ANSWERS
    1. I felt BAD about eating the last slice of fruitcake. [Her[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. [Her[Here ate IS an action verb.]>
    3. That fruitcake didn’t taste as BAD as I thought it would. [The[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. [Her[Here looked describes a state of being, not the action of gazing upon something.]>
    5. She made him feel BAD when she told him how BADLY he cooks. [Feeling in this context is not an action, but cooks is.]>

    Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2019.