Breaking Bad, an unusual cable series, closes its third season on Sunday, June 13. I just got Seasons 1 & 2 on DVD, and plan on some good hours in front of the TV (unusual for me). But yet my enjoyment has a minor irritant; shouldn't it be "Breaking Badly"?


Questions about using an adjective or an adverb after a verb are some of the most troubling for people who pride themselves on understanding and using good grammar. Which is correct: “I feel good” or “I feel well”? Should we write, “I feel badly about that” or “I feel bad”? Do we complain about people who talk very loud or people who talk very loudly?


Breaking Bad has several interesting aspects, including the question of class and criminality in America. And all too often, because standard, or “grammatical,” usage is associated with social and economic class, folks can feel insecure about their usage and, sometimes, overcorrect. We wind up feeling badly when we really feel bad.


While it is true that adverbs modify verbs, adverbs can do many other things as well. And adverb forms are not the only forms of modifiers that follow verbs; adjectives have their place, too. The key is to know what the verb is and what it’s doing in the sentence.


In sentences with forms of “be,” such as “I am a teacher,” the word teacher applies to the subject, I, not the verb. It is a subject complement, or predicate nominative. In sentences such as “I am happy,” the word happy describes the subject. It is a subject complement, aka a predicate adjective. This can always happen with the verb “to be”; it can be followed by a noun, noun phrase, or noun clause or an adjective that applies to the subject.


 So let’s look at verbs not just of being but of sensing, like feel. Consider “I feel bad” and “I feel badly.” Which is correct? Well, we just need to figure out whether the word after the verb feel applies to the subject, I, or the verb, feel. If it applies to the state of the subject I, then bad is correct. If it applies to the ability to feel, as in touching an object, then badly is correct.


 Consider the so-called killer joke: “How does your dog smell?” If the answer is awful, then the dog stinks! If the dog smells awfully, the dog has no nose, or at least one that doesn’t work very well.


 “I feel good / I knew that I would, now.” Yes, now I feel good that I’ve explained that. But as for breaking bad . . . does bad apply to how the thing is breaking? Um, yes, it probably should be breaking badly. Like “that wave breaks badly.” But in this case, I think we can chalk up that title to idiomatic usage — and settle down for a nice long session of DVD watching.


What do you think? About men behaving bad or badly? Where do you fall: bad or badly? Let us know!



Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services. 

by on ‎06-13-2010 08:10 PM

I guess I'd have to ask them. But, either way, I do feel badly that they feel bad, that is if they feel at all.  Maybe they have a stomachache, and I could offer them a good dose of Pepto Bismol?  Do you think that would help?  Do you think they would feel bad if they refused my offer...or maybe I would feel bad and badly for them?   I'm really feeling bad right now, my head is starting to hurt, again..... Gosh, I'm so confused!

by on ‎06-15-2010 05:56 PM

(scratching head) Ok umm how do I put this.... the terminology of "Breaking Bad" is slang. And that's thing about slang, it throws grammer out of the window.

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎06-16-2010 12:06 AM

Hi TiggerBear,

Can't say I love that condescending "how do I put this"--but I'd have to continue that discussion offline. You know I'm no prescriptivist. In fact, I use these investigations of what many think of as "bad grammar" to look at  how many of us misunderstand what grammar is, or think that usage is grammar, or think that there is only one "right" grammar.


And regarding your specific point, I have to disagree that "slang throws grammer out the window," and I disagree that "breaking bad" is slang. It's usage--and perfectly acceptable usage.


Slang is most often defined as vocabulary; that's why there are slang dictionaries. Slang coexists very happily with grammar. Consider the grammar and vocabulary of Standard American English (SAE) and the grammar and vocabulary of AAVE, for instance. Much AAVE vocabulary is considered slang--a vocabulary specific to a particular group. If you would claim AAVE has no grammar because "that's thing about slang, it throws grammer out of the window.," I'd have to disagree.


by on ‎06-16-2010 11:03 AM

Ellen, you make an interesting point, one which I hadn't thought about, "slang is most often defined as vocabulary". 


I was thinking about this, as I looked at the word, "bad".  It's now often used as meaning, "good", and throws me really off when I hear words being changed, and used, by a younger generation.  You've brought a lot of things to my attention, and have helped me sort them out. I see your humor in these 'scenes' you create for me, and that's why I write my own little nonsense scenarios.  I hope you know I'm not making fun of you, or what you're trying to convey.  I'm a very visual person, and it does help me to work through these problematic word usages in this way.  Thanks for your help.



by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎06-17-2010 02:22 PM


I very much enjoy your wordplay! Always happy to see it. Curiousity and investigation can be so much fun.


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