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.