Having a good reason to feel bad

I feel bad. And I'll tell you why I feel bad.

I feel bad because, just three sentences into this column, I know that certain readers are already booting up their laptops, hardly able to wait for that little Windows logo to finish waving so they can read me the riot act regarding my first three sentences. "Bad," these readers are just itching to tell me, is not an adverb. What I meant to write, they'll say, is that I feel "badly."

And here's the reason I feel so bad: This is a setup. Entrapment. A cruel taunting of the language cops, who are so eager to catch people making mistakes that they don't even take time to do their homework.

The correct phrasing, such homework would tell them, is not "I feel badly." It's "I feel bad."

And if that's not bad enough, here's another reason I feel so bad: The best explanation I've ever found for this rule is in a book that I left in a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn. My "Garner's Modern American Usage," a book I rely on so much that my boyfriend refers to author Bryan Garner as "June's other boyfriend," was forgotten last week in a blur of schmoozing Penguin Publishing people and guacamole.

Back home in Southern California, I went to two local bookstores to buy a new "Garner's." But, in accordance with a bicoastal conspiracy to make me feel bad, both were sold out. So I bought a copy of "Fowler's Modern English Usage" instead. I've cited "Fowler's" countless times without ever owning a copy. I'm cheap, so I always used the library's copy. I feel kind of bad about that, too.

"Fowler's" is helpful.

It tells us that "bad" is used "as an adjective after the verb 'feel' ? 'I feel bad.'" And author R.W. Burchfield goes on to add that "'bad' is unobjectionable even in quite formal English."

But you don't have to take Burchfield's word for it. The "Chicago Manual of Style" agrees, as does the "Associated Press Stylebook."

"Bad," say the AP authors, "does not lose its status as an adjective, however, in a sentence such as 'I feel bad.' Such a statement is the idiomatic equivalent of 'I am in bad health.' An alternative, 'I feel badly,' could be interpreted as meaning that your sense of touch was bad."

Based on what I read in Garner's, I would argue that AP kind of misses the point. "I feel bad" isn't idiomatic. It's grammatically correct.

"Feel" in this sentence is acting as something called a "copular verb" or a "linking verb." The most common copular verb is "to be," and all other copular verbs seem to me to pertain to states of being. "Become," "get," "seem," "appear," even "wax," as in "wax poetic," are all copular verbs and all sort of refer back to their subjects.

Think about the sentence, "I am happy." The verb here, "am," is a conjugated form of "to be" ? the mother of all copular verbs.

Now, the people who argue for "I feel badly" say that the adverb is required because it modifies the verb "feel." Thus, according to their logic, shouldn't "I am happy" be "I am happily?" Ditto for "I seem happily," "I become happily" and "I appear happily?"

The point they're missing is that these are all copular verbs and copular verbs take adjectives. This type of verb has more to do with the subject of the sentence than how that subject went about performing the action in the verb.

At least, that's how I recall my other boyfriend explained it before I left him to be found by some faceless, margarita-drinking Brooklynite who will probably take him home but then just put him on a shelf never to be touched again.

Now I really feel bad.

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