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GRAMMAR TIP: Bad vs. Badly


I don’t want to make you feel bad, but because so many writers handle this issue badly, I’m going to discuss the use of ‘bad’ and ‘badly’.

Let’s start with ‘badly’, which is an adverb. Roughly speaking, an adverb describes how something is done.

Example: She handled the news badly.

‘Bad’, on the other hand, is most familiar to us as an adjective, but what confuses us sometimes is that it can also be an adverb.

In adjectival form, ‘bad’ provides detail about the noun it accompanies.

Example: I have a bad feeling about this.

As an adverb, ‘bad’ modifies the preceding verb.

Example: Now, I don’t feel so bad about it.

If you’re in doubt about which adverbial form to use, test it by replacing ‘badly’ with a synonym such as ‘poorly’.

Example: She handled the news poorly.

That looks and sounds right, but would ‘poor’ work?

Example: She handled the news poor.

Definitely not; the form ‘badly’ is correct. But why? What’s different about the two adverbial forms? The issue is complicated by the fact that two types of verbs exist: action verbs and linking verbs. ‘Handled’, in the first example above, is an action verb because ‘she’ did something. Linking verbs, on the other hand, describe a state of being: I think, therefore I am.

That explains why you want something ‘bad’, not ‘badly’. To want something ‘badly’ means to do a poor job of wanting it—almost the opposite meaning. That’s why you’re not doing too ‘bad’, rather than ‘badly’ right now. ‘Bad’ is a condition (a linking verb), not a performance (an action verb).


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