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A Word, Please: Do you smell bad or badly? Big difference.

August 16, 2013|By June Casagrande | By June Casagrande

If I were to write that coffee smells good, I wouldn't hear a word about it. If I wrote that I am happy, Emily seems nice, pizza sounds delicious, liver tastes bad or all men are created equal, none of those statements would incite the grammar cops.

But there's one sentence that, although identical in structure to all these, is guaranteed to get me rapped on the knuckles. It's "I feel bad."

If I make that statement or any variation on it, someone is certain to scold me for my "error," as one Chuck in Albany did recently.

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Here's the sentence I had written: "I grew up in a family of people who had a lot to feel bad about."

And here's Chuck: "With all due respect to your education and knowledge of English grammar and syntax, please be advised that your use of 'bad' is incorrect; the correct form is the adverb 'badly.'"

Sorry, Charlie. That's just wrong.

Chuck was operating on the assumption (dissect that word as you will) that the only modifier that can follow a verb is an adverb like "badly" and not an adjective like "bad." That's because Chuck doesn't know about copular verbs.

If it weren't for copular verbs, often called linking verbs, you couldn't say "I am happy." You would have to say "I am happily." You couldn't say "Pizza sounds delicious." You'd say "Pizza sounds deliciously." Emily would seem nicely, liver would taste badly, all men would be created equally and coffee would smell well.

But obviously, all these sentences call for an adjective, not an adverb, after the verb because all those verbs are copular.

Copular verbs convey being, seeming or the senses, including taste, feel and smell. Copular verbs don't express action. They point back to the subject of the sentence — a noun like Emily, pizza or coffee. The word that follows a copular verb is really modifying that noun, not the verb. And adjectives, not adverbs, modify nouns.

Some verbs can be copular or not, depending on meaning. In "Joe acts nice" the verb "acts" is copular suggesting that "nice" is modifying Joe. But in "Joe acts nicely," "acts" is an action verb, which we modify with an adverb to state that Joe is a skilled thespian.

"Jane appears quickly" means she materializes fast. "Jane appears quick" means she's smart. Your Uncle Lou could smell bad or badly, depending on his hygiene and olfactory abilities.

It is possible to feel badly, but that would involve Novocain-numbed fingertips. To express remorse or sympathy, the grammatically correct form is "I feel bad."

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