Tuesday, January 24, 2012

From the Tangential Thinker

Every now and them I am blindsided by my perhaps willful ignorance. Years of expensive private education hasn't saved my from myself yet occasionally I find brilliance in the oddest places.

Our neighborhood newspaper The Ladue News, has a weekly feature The Tangential Thinker, written by Debbie Baldwin. Her column reads like a blog entry. You rarely know what's coming, but it's always entertaining, occasionally thought provoking, and generally pretty funny. Debbie also writes the movie reviews.

I saw myself in her eyes this week, and it caught me short. I thought I'd share.

by Debbie Baldwin
Ladue News, January 20, 2012

I've got a Bad Feeling about This
For years, I have been at odds with my mother. I have always maintained that if you, say, inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings, you ought to feel badly about it. My mother thinks it’s feel bad. She elaborates that if you feel badly, you have a poor sense of touch. I argue that feel is a verb regardless. So it goes. Back and forth. And everybody I ask not only has a different answer, but a different explanation for that answer.

So I had to end it. It was time to bring the mountain to Mohammad: I emailed Richard Lederer, one of our country’s foremost grammarians, as well as the author of dozens of books on the subject, including the hilarious Anguished English. He also was my husband’s English teacher at St. Paul’s School. Here is what he had to say:

The adjective BAD, meaning “unpleasant, unattractive, unfavorable, spoiled, etc.,” is the usual form following such linking verbs as look, smell, sound, and taste: After the rainstorm, the water tasted bad. The contents of the refrigerator smell bad. After the linking verb feel, BAD is the most common adjective, although feel badly is frequently seen and heard, especially with the meaning of “I regret:” I feel badly that I let you down. Although this represents an admirable attempt to differentiate physical ill being (I feel bad) from emotional ill being (I feel badly), much in the manner of I feel good vs. I feel well, feel badly has been criticized for more than a century. Ask the offended why they object, and their voices will slip into the tonal groove that the century-old explanation has worn for itself: “If you feel badly, your finger tips must be numbed, or you’re wearing thick gloves.” Har har—but for a great number of people this disapproval is very real. You might attempt to explain to the finger waggers that the ‘badly’ in ‘feel badly’ is not an adverb but an adjective, in the manner of costly, elderly, friendly, kindly, sickly, and more than a hundred other adjectives that wag–‘ly’ tails, and they will still feel strongly (ahem!) that feel badly is somehow wrongheaded. That’s in part because BADLY is not a fully integrated adjective: If you are sickly, you are a sickly person, but if you feel badly, you are not a badly person. At this juncture in the winding way our language travels, you will communicate more effectively if you feel bad, rather than badly.

So there you have it. My mother was right, but not for the reason she thought she was right. So ha, take that. I was wrong—but I don’t feel bad about it.
Debbie Baldwin

Remember the old joke, I should have listened to my mother!
What did she say?
I don't know I wasn't listening.

I too should have listened.



Shelley said...

"...not a fully integrated adjective." Well, one lives and learns. What fun!

Gail, in northern California said...

Reminds me of Apple's advertising motto: "Think Different". For me, it was jarring. Nevertheless, I didn't forget it and, of course, that was their advertisers' intent.

Jennings and Gates said...

Funny. The word misuse that always bugs me is the misuse of simplistic.

Patsy said...

This is why grammar makes me feel badly.

Anonymous said...

Hm, English teacher here. Badly works because it is an ADVERB. Tsk, tsk, Richard Lederer.

GP said...

There's a good book entitled: "Grammar snobs are great big meanies". I think it is worth owning.

Jessica Taylor said...

"...not a fully integrated adjective." Well, one lives and learns. What fun!