A Word, Please: Breaking bad habits

Recently, a friend visiting from out of town plunked down a DVD on my coffee table.

"You should watch this," she said.

It was season one of "Breaking Bad," the gritty AMC network drama about a high-school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer who resorts to desperate measures to provide for his family.

It took about three episodes, maybe four, before I said, "This may be the best show I've ever seen."

Halfway through the season three DVD, I'm still saying it. The writing is brilliant, the directing is brilliant, and the acting, led by former "Malcolm in the Middle" dad Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn and Aaron Paul, is brilliant.

To me, even the title is brilliant because it provides a fascinating example of what's called a copular verb.

In the show, the exact term "breaking bad" is never used, though Paul's character, Jesse Pinkman, once uses a conjugated variant to question why Cranston's Walter White has chosen to "break bad." Pinkman is a punk criminal who punctuates every other sentence with, "yo," so it's safe to term this as slang. From the context, it's clear he means "to turn to a life of crime" — similar to the way "go rogue" is used in spy thrillers. So this "break" can be understood as a rough equivalent of "become."

Urbandictionary.com says that "to break bad" can mean "to go wild, get crazy, let loose, to forget all your cares and just plain not give a sh**, to have a great time, to break out of your mold." It can also mean "to completely dominate or humiliate through sheer superiority" — a definition that's poetically apropos to some themes in the show.

Notice that this "break" is different from the one in "to break bread," "to break news" or "to break a leg." In these, you're breaking something. There's a thing being acted upon — a noun — that serves as the object of the verb. So the "break" in "break news" is transitive. In fact, that's the definition of a transitive verb: One that takes a direct object.

An intransitive verb does not take an object: to run, to speak, to drive, to recline — these are all intransitive because they're not done to something. They're just done. Many verbs can have both transitive and intransitive meanings. For example, if someone asks what you do on weekends, you might use the intransitve "I walk" or the transitive "I walk the dog."

The "break" at the root of our title is neither transitive nor intransitive. Verbs that are about being, becoming, seeming, appearing or the six senses are called copular or linking verbs. Copular verbs reflect back on their subjects. That is, they're less about an action than about offering commentary on the person or thing that is the subject of the verb.

"Joe becomes angry," "Marie seems nice," "Pete acts innocent," "Roger is tall," "coffee smells good" — all these verbs are copular. They tell us something about our subject. That's why, unlike transitive and intransitive verbs that can be followed by adverbs — I run slowly, he speaks clearly — copular verbs are usually followed by adjectives — I am happy (not happily), this soup tastes terrible (not terribly).

Copular verbs can have noncopular counterparts. The noncopular "Sam smells badly" means his nose doesn't work well, while the copular "Sam smells bad" means something else entirely.

This brings us to a common error. Many people choose "I feel badly" to express regret. But this "feel" is copular and should take an adjective, not an adverb. That's why it's more correct to say, "I feel bad," which, coincidentally, is how I feel for anyone who misses out on my new favorite show, yo.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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