Use bad (adj.) to describe nouns and pronouns as “immoral” or “of low quality.” Use badly (adv.) to modify verbs when meaning “to a great degree” or “in a bad manner.”
What is the difference between bad and badly?
The adjective bad is one of the first words we learn to use, as it informs our understanding of qualities we enjoy. (For example: “Sugar is good. Pain is bad.”) But when it comes to the word badly, the adverbial form of bad, writers of all levels struggle to remember how these terms function differently.
- The adjective bad modifies nouns and pronouns to mean “immoral,” “of low quality,” “inadequate,” etc.
- The adverb badly expresses the manner or degree of an action that is “bad” in some capacity.
The primary reason writers misuse bad and badly involves linking verbs like “to be” and “to feel,” which we modify with predicate adjectives instead of adverbial complements.
What does the word bad mean?
In general, the word bad is an adjective that describes something as “not good” or “of low quality.” Most of the time, this means something is “bad” because it fails to meet an acceptable standard, such as spoiled food, a failed grade, or a bad impression. Otherwise, the adjective can describe something that is:
- Immoral or disobedient
- Inadequate or dysfunctional
- Adverse reaction or result
- Unwelcome, unpleasant, or disagreeable
- Injurious or damaging (especially to one’s health)
- Riddled with errors
- Of poor health
- Regrettable or sorrowful
- Void or invalid
- “Not everyone is so bad, you know.”
- “That child is a bad apple.”
- “This vacuum is pretty bad.”
- “He had a bad reaction to raw oysters.”
- “We had a bad time at the theater.”
- “Smoking is bad for you.”
- “He woke up feeling bad.”
- “I feel so bad about it.”
- “Try to avoid writing bad checks.”
Alternatively, it’s becoming more common to find the adjective meaning “very good,” “great,” or even “tough” (used with comparative badder and superlative baddest).
- “She’s so bad.”
- “She’s badder than most.”
- “She’s the baddest around.”
Bad as a noun
The word bad also appears as a noun to reference:
- Someone or something that doesn’t meet one’s standards of ethics or decency.
- A state of unhappiness or immorality.
- A specific fault or error (usually of one’s own making).
- “You must try to find the good in people.”
- “The situation quickly went from bad to worse.”
- “There’s the good, bad, and the ugly.”
- “That was my bad.”
Bad as an adverb
“Bad” is a non-traditional adverb that has become more common for American English to mean “very much.” For example:
- “The burn hurts so bad.” (informal)
- “It aches real bad.” (informal)
The practice of using bad as an adverb is widely condemned for formal writing and merely tolerated for informal speech. However, it is now standard for American English to use the adverbial form with the verbs “want” and “need,” particularly as it separates the meaning of “very much” from “in an inferior manner or condition” or “immorally.”
- “The store needs help real bad.”
- “I wanted that job so bad.”
Adj.: Adverse, awful, amoral, corrupt, critical, defective, deficient, depraved, dire, disagreeable, dreadful, immoral, inadequate, inferior, invalid, moldy, nasty, poor, rotten, severe, shocking, substandard, unfavorable, unwelcome, wicked, worthless.
Adv.: Desperately, exceedingly, greatly, intensely, painfully.
What does the word badly mean?
The adverb badly means “to a great or intense degree” or “very much,” especially when it emphasizes the “badness” of a particular event or action. However, the adverb also absorbs all other connotations of the adjective bad to mean “in a bad manner,” meaning it can specifically convey “in an inadequate, unfavorable, or unacceptable way.”
- “She wanted to be a mother so badly.”
- “Her ego was badly hurt.”
- “Our cohort performed badly.”
- “The child tends to behave badly.”
- “I hope you won’t think badly of us.”
- “That specific sentence reads badly.”
Adv. 1: Acutely, alarmingly, critically, dangerously, desperately, gravely, intensely, severely, sorely, perilously.
Adv. 2: Adversely, carelessly, defectively, deficiently, imperfectly, inadequately, incompetently, incorrectly, inefficiently, ineptly, negligently, poorly, unfavorably, unsatisfactorily, unsuccessfully.
How to use badly in a sentence?
Use the adverb badly to describe “action verbs,” which are verbs that show what the sentence subject is doing (e.g., sing, run, eat, smile, think, etc.).
Correct: “She sang badly.”
Incorrect: “She sang bad.”
Correct: “He cooks badly.”
Incorrect: “He cooks bad.”
Correct: “The dog behaves badly.”
Incorrect: “The dog behaves bad.”
How to use bad in a sentence?
Use the adjective bad to describe nouns or pronouns:
Correct: “I have a bad feeling about it.”
Incorrect: “I have a badly feeling about it.”
Correct: “It’s a bad movie.”
Incorrect: “It’s a badly movie.”
Correct: “He is a bad person.”
Incorrect: “He is a badly person.”
Correct: “It’s not a bad way to make friends.”
Incorrect: “It’s not a badly way to make friends.”
The exception: linking verbs
As noted by Garner’s Modern English Usage, the exception to the rule involves linking verbs like is, feels, seems, and tastes, where it’s correct to use “bad” as a predicate adjective instead of “badly” as an adverbial complement.
Correct: “Mother’s cooking never tastes bad.”
Incorrect: “Mother’s cooking never tastes badly.”
Correct: “The new album sounds bad.”
Incorrect: “The new album sounds badly.”
Correct: “The yogurt looks bad.”
Incorrect: “The yogurt looks badly.”
Quick note on linking verbs
Linking verbs “link” a sentence subject with its predicate adjective or predicate nominative (otherwise known as “subject complements”). Unlike action verbs, linking verbs do not show action. They show a state of being.
Common examples of linking verbs include:
- All forms of “to be” (be, is, am, are, was, were, has/have been, are/is being, might be)
- All verbs relating to the five senses (aka “sense verbs“), including feel, look, smell, sound, taste, and touch.
- All verb forms of become, seem, and appear.
Verbs like “to be,” “to become,” and “to seem” are always linking verbs, so it is grammatically correct to follow these verbs with an adjective like “bad.” For example:
- “He is bad.”
- “He seems bad.”
- “He became bad.”
Some verbs can also function as action verbs and linking verbs, so it’s important to recognize the difference between how these terms function in a sentence:
- Action verbs convey what a subject is doing.
- Linking verbs appear in descriptive clauses.
Examples of verbs that can function as action verbs or linking verbs:
|Verb||Action verb||Linking verb|
|Appear||“She appears at noon.”||“She appeared sad.”|
|Feel||“She is feeling the fabric.”||“The velvet felt soft.”|
|Get||“We are getting tires for the car.”||“New tires can get expensive.”|
|Grow||“Our boss grew plants in April.”||“Our boss grew solemn.”|
|Look||“We looked at the pies.”||“The pies look delicious.”|
|Prove||“What does that prove?”||“They proved everyone wrong.”|
|Remain||“He remained in the room.”||“He remained quiet.”|
|Smell||“Adam is smelling the breeze.”||“The breeze smelled sweet.”|
|Sound||“It sounded like fireworks.”||“It sounds loud.”|
|Stay||“We stayed in the guest bedroom.”||“Please stay still.”|
|Taste||“Did you taste the cookies?”||“The cookies taste amazing.”|
|Turn||“She turned the page.”||“She turned quiet.”|
How to tell the difference between action verbs and linking verbs?
The easiest way to tell the difference between an action verb and a linking verb is to substitute the verb in question with a basic form of “to be” and see if the sentence still makes sense.
To illustrate, let’s use a few examples from above:
|Verb||Action verb||Check||Linking verb||Check|
|Feel||“She is feeling the fabric.”||“She is being the fabric.”||“The velvet felt soft.”||“The velvet is soft.”|
|Look||“We looked at the pies.”||“We is at the pies.”||“The pies look delicious.”||“The pies are delicious.”|
|Smell||“Adam is smelling the breeze.”||“Adam is being the breeze.”||“The breeze smelled sweet.”||“The breeze is sweet.”|
|Taste||“Did you taste the cookies?”||“Did you is the cookies?”||“The cookies taste amazing.”||“The cookies are amazing.”|
|Turn||“She turned the page.”||“She is the page.”||“She turned quiet.”||“She is quiet.”|
As we can see, replacing the sentence’s verb with a form of “to be” will either make the sentence more direct or nonsensical.
Why it matters: The most common error involving bad/badly involves sense verbs like “to feel,” which can function as action or linking verbs. Using this trick will help you identify when you might be using “bad” or “badly” incorrectly.
Is it feel bad or feel badly?
When making a statement regarding one’s physical health or emotional state, the correct word to use is “bad,” not “badly.”
Correct: “I feel bad today.”
Incorrect: “I feel badly today.”
Correct: “After watching the show, I felt bad.”
Incorrect: “After watching the show, I felt badly.”
As explained by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the tendency to write “feel badly” is a hypercorrection stemming from the rule of using adverbs with action verbs. For example, it’s grammatically correct to write, “It hurt badly,” while the phrase “It hurt bad” is technically wrong.
However, it’s worth noting that British dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary also define the adverb badly as meaning “in a guilty or regretful way,” suggesting that British English uses the phrasing of “feel badly” rather than “feel bad.”
Is it so bad or so badly?
The use of “bad” or “badly” depends on the types of verbs “so bad/badly” describe.
If bad/badly describe the verbs “want” or “need,” either adverbial form is correct:
- “I want candy so bad.” (correct)
- “I want candy so badly.” (also correct)
Just be mindful of which verb bad/badly modifies in the sentence (it’s usually the first verb):
- “We need to win so bad.” (incorrect)
- “We need to win so badly.” (correct)
When bad/badly reference action verbs, so badly is the correct word to use:
- “I draw so bad.” (incorrect)
- “I draw so badly.” (correct)
If bad/badly describe linking verbs or sense verbs, so bad is the correct word:
- “The new song sounds so bad.” (correct)
- “The new song sounds so badly.” (incorrect)
The same rule applies for the sense verb “feel,” yet when the verb suggests a feeling of remorse or guilt, it’s also correct to write so badly (more common for British English):
- “He feels so bad about the whole thing.” (correct)
- “He feels so badly about the whole thing.” (also correct)
Bad vs. badly: When to use worse and worst?
While bad and badly represent different parts of speech, the terms share comparative and superlative forms (worse and worst).
Comparative adjectives compare differences between two things in a sentence. When the word bad functions as a comparative adjective, it’s written as “worse.”
Superlative adjectives describe a sentence object as having the uppermost quality of all things compared. When the word bad does as much, it’s written as “worst.”
- “He is a bad singer.” (adjective)
- “He is a worse singer than me.” (comparative adjective)
- “Out of all our friends, he is the worst singer.” (superlative adjective)
The same principle applies for comparative and superlative adverbs, although adverbs that end with –ly typically require us to add “more” for the comparative form and “most” for the superlative. This is not the case for badly.
The adverb badly has irregular comparative and superlative forms, meaning it uses the same words as its adjectival counterpart.
- “You’re sweating badly.” (adverb)
- “You’re sweating worse today than yesterday.” (comparative adverb)
- “You sweat the worst of anyone I know.” (superlative adverb)
If you enjoyed learning the difference between bad and badly, be sure to check out similar lessons on The Word Counter:
Test how well you understand the difference between bad and badly with the following multiple-choice questions.
- True or false?: It is standard to use the word bad as an adverb after the verb want.
- To do a “bad job” is to ____________.
a. Do poor work
b. Do a poor job
c. Do an okay job
d. A or B
- In some cases, the word bad means “good,” but only when it’s an _______________.
- The words bad and badly traditionally form different parts of speech, where “bad” is an ___________ and “badly” is an ___________.
a. Adjective, noun
b. Adjective, adverb
c. Adverb, adjective
d. Noun, adjective
- “Badly” is the ____________ of “bad.”
a. Adjectival form
b. Adverbial form
c. Opposite meaning
d. Short form
- Linking verbs connect the subject of a sentence with its ______________.
a. Direct object
c. Preceding verb
- Which of the following sentences misuses the word bad?
a. “We all know she performed pretty bad.”
b. “Bad grammar is one of the teacher’s biggest pet peeves.”
c. “The first sentence needs a semicolon bad.”
d. “Nobody saw a clear winner because they were both pretty bad.”
- Which of the following sentences uses the word badly incorrectly?
a. “The stock market performed badly in the early 1900s.”
b. “The government badly violated its citizens’ rights to privacy.”
c. “The whole situation is pretty badly.”
d. “The first example sentence reads badly.”
- “Bad.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2021.
- “Bad.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2021.
- “Bad.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
- “Bad.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
- “Badly.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2021.
- “Badly.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
- “Badly.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
- “Comparative and superlative adverbs.” Resources for Learning English, EF Education First Ltd, 2022.
- Garner, B. “Badly.” Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed, Oxford University Press, 2016, p 91.
- “Is it feel bad or feel badly?” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
- “The comparative and the superlative.” Resources for Learning English, EF Education First Ltd, 2022.
- “Writing Rocks!: Linking verbs.” Stone Writing Center at Del Mar College, Del Mar College, n.d.