Above the Law

ANSWER: I feel bad for you.

Writers often make mistakes when they use verbs that do nothing more than connect the subject with a descriptive word in the predicate. Remember this rule: use an adjective, not an adverb, as a subject complement (predicate adjective) after (1) a be-verb, or (2) a verb of sense or becoming (such as appear, become, feel, look, seem, smell, sound, and taste)—which are essentially be-verb equivalents.

Such verbs are traditionally called “linking verbs” or “copulas.” All the following phrases contain linking verbs with predicate adjectives:

to come true (as a prediction)
to feel relaxed
to get weary
to go lame
to grow tired
to keep busy
to look pale
to prove false
to remain loyal
to sit mute
to sound smart
to stand firm
to stay true
to turn sour
to wax eloquent

To avoid error, analyze the sentence. The apple cobbler tastes good, not The apple cobbler *tastes well. Ask yourself: Does the descriptive word describe the action {the siren sounded loudly}, or the subject {the siren seems very loud}? If it describes the subject, then use an adjective {her hair looked bad after she walked in the rain}.

Someone who smells bad may need to bathe. (The adjective bad describes the subject—specifically its odor.) Someone who smells badly may need to visit an ENT doctor. (The adverb badly describes the manner in which the verb is performed.) So when you say “I feel bad,” you’re describing your emotional or physical condition. But if you say “I feel badly,” you’re suggesting that your tactile functions are impaired (perhaps because your hands are injured).

Should you feel bad if you’ve spent years saying feel badly? No. But you’ll feel good from now on whenever you confidently say that you feel bad.

Sources:
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 32 (3d ed. 2011).
Garner’s Modern American Usage 83 (3d ed. 2009).
The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 10.35, at 204-05 (3d ed. 2013).
The Chicago Manual of Style § 5.99, at 231, § 5.167, at 246 (16th ed. 2010).
R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage 86-87 (3d ed. 1996).

Thanks to Lowell H. Dubrow, Brett Geer, James Higgins, and Robert Ramsey for suggesting this topic.

Bryan A. Garner, President of LawProse Inc., is the most prolific CLE presenter in the U.S., having trained more than 150,000 lawyers and judges. His book — most prominently Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage — have been cited as authority by every state and federal appellate court, including the highest. For more about him, go to www.lawprose.org. To follow him on Twitter: @bryanagarner.