Miss Conduct on Correcting Grammar

I’m a huge fan of Miss Conduct, a Cambridge-based psychologist who writes an etiquette column in the Boston Globe Magazine each week. She’s much more realistic than Miss Manners (whom I believe tries too hard to be concisely witty, thus often shortchanging her readers). I was looking through the archives and came across this gem from the August 5th issue:

Recently I was talking with a friend about another friend’s sickness and said I felt “badly” for my sick friend’s family. The friend I was conversing with interrupted me and said I should have said I felt “bad” for the family. I don’t dispute my grammar slip, but was it rude of my friend to interject an admonishment about my grammar in the middle of such a serious conversation? I’ve often wondered what the etiquette is for correcting others’ grammar. I feel that it is rude to do this, but I know many people who seem to believe it is not only appropriate, but their duty.
E.R. in Stoneham

And they’re wrong. The etiquette for correcting another person’s grammar is that you don’t, not unless you have blanket permission and a compelling reason to do so. Even then, never interrupt a train of thought or a serious conversation. The English language has been around for 600 years in its present form, give or take a century, depending on which linguistic historian you ask, and is the dominant language worldwide for business, science, and politics. It is, in short, sturdier than the average friendship and in need of less coddling.

Some people correct others’ grammar more out of unthinking habit than out of a deep protective instinct toward the mother tongue. It’s a verbal tic with them, as swearing or automatically making wisecracks is for other people. As with these other peccadilloes, ignore it if it doesn’t bother you, and if it does, gently register an objection.

The most interesting part about this piece, I find, is that badly, in fact, is the correct term. E.R. was grammatically correct when she said that she felt badly. That reminds me of people who overuse “and I” when they should be saying “and me” half the time!

I agree with Miss Conduct that it’s not worth sweating the small stuff when it comes to an issue like this, and correcting grammar is a peccadillo much like swearing for someone else.

When she mentions that the language is sturdy and needs to coddling, it can be argued that Miss Conduct thinks that one can get away with improper grammar as long as the point gets across. Personally, I don’t think that’s what she meant.

My own opinion is that if it’s personal conversation, to let it slide. I don’t use perfect grammar in my speech at all times. However, if this is professional writing, writing that was examined in depth, writing that could have easily been edited, you have a right to complain about it!


18 responses to “Miss Conduct on Correcting Grammar

  1. Feel is a linking verb in the expression, “I feel bad.”
    “I feel badly’ implies that my hands are numb. Some verbs, such as feel, look, appear, can be used as linking verbs. Certainly you’d never say, “He looks badly.” Unless, of course, he can find no one in a game of hide-and-seek.

  2. I noticed a small typo in the first line of the penultimate paragraph; it should read no coddling instead of to coddling.

    I agree with anonymous that bad is the correct choice in the example given.

  3. This reminds me of one of my favorite exchanges in cinema, from Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang:

    Perry: “Go. Sleep badly. Any questions, hesitate to call.”
    Harry: “Bad.”
    Perry: “Excuse me?”
    Harry: “Sleep bad. Otherwise it seems like the mechanism that allows you to sleep…”
    Perry: “What, f##khead? Badly’s an adverb. Who taught you grammar?”

  4. I agree with the first anon. To “feel badly” refers to the physical use of hands feeling another physical entity. On the other hand, to “feel bad” refers to the abstract of emotion.

  5. “My own opinion is that if it’s personal conversation, to let it slide. I don’t use perfect grammar in my speech at all times.”

    Nor do you always use it in your writing.

  6. Previous Anonymous:
    Thanks for pointing out the hypocrisy!

  7. Great points. One other thing to keep in mind is that when asked how you are, you’re supposed to say, “I’m fine” or “I’m well” rather than “I’m good.”

    Does feel qualify as a linking verb?

    I’ll look it up and report back.

  8. http://www.bartleby.com/61/7/B0020700.html

    The adverb badly is often used after verbs such as feel, as in I felt badly about the whole affair. This usage bears analogy to the use of other adverbs with feel, such as strongly in We feel strongly about this issue. Some people prefer to maintain a distinction between feel badly and feel bad, restricting the former to emotional distress and using the latter to cover physical ailments; however, this distinction is not universally observed, so feel badly should be used in a context that makes its meaning clear.

  9. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of American Usage’s Take on Feel Bad vs. Feel Badly
    “The controversy over feel bad and feel badly has been going on for more than a century, and since its beginnings lie in two opposing prescriptive standards—that of the 1869 handbook prescribing feel badly and that of the 20th-century schoolbooks prescribing feel bad—it is unlikely to die out very soon. People will go on about as they do now—some differentiating bad and badly, some not, some avoiding badly, some not. You can see that the question is not a s simple as it is often claimed to be, and, with those considerations in mind, make your own choice. Whatever it is, you will have some worthy comrades and some worthy opponents.”

  10. Correcting someone’s grammar doesn’t necessarily mean the person is being a nuisance, it can also be a gentle way of helping someone better themselves. It’s kinder for them to learn that they made a mistake from a friend, than to make the mistake in public and embarass themselves.

  11. re: bad vs. badly. I’m not a grammar expert, but my grammar teacher last semester mentioned that the misuse of “badly” was a particular pet peeve of his. He used this example: you wouldn’t say “I feel sadly for your friend,” therefore you shouldn’t say “I feel badly for your friend.”

    Again, I ain’t no grammar expert; I’m just passing along the advice of the excellent Dr. Haley. 🙂

  12. Yes, Kate. “Feel” would be considered a linking verb, just like any of the verbs related to the five senses (look, sound, smell, feel, taste).

    Also, “I am well” means that you are in good health: “I am good” is also acceptable; however, you should never say, “I am doing good.”

    Look forward to your report back.

  13. and shouldn’t it be “(who I believe tries too hard…”

    You are saying that you believe she tries too hard, not that you believe her, correct?

  14. I would say that “I am good,” although often used in the sense of “I am well,” really carries an entirely different meaning — that of one’s essence being good, not merely one’s health or circumstances.

  15. Isn’t saying “I feel badly” like saying you’re bad at feeling? Not being very good at feeling things emotionally is a sad thing, of course, but I can’t imagine that’s what people mean when they say it.

  16. I agree with Rich. Years ago I pronounced Tao incorrectly and someone told me the correct pronunciation. I appreciate that person to this day. I’d much rather be corrected than have someone politely leave me to my ignorance.

    And it’s bad, BAD! You feel bad, you don’t feel badly.
    Every time I hear someone say “I feel badly” it brings to mind being felt up – badly.
    You don’t want to be someone who feels badly.

  17. Poor grammar is the intellectual equivalent to having parsley stuck in your teeth.

  18. What about “Dress warmly”

    as in “Kids, it’s cold outside, so dress warmly”

    should it be “dress warm”?

    My theory on these is that the underlying phrase “Dress warm/warmly” isn’t correct in either iteration. The phrase is informal (colloquioal) and therefore the rules of good grammar are ALREADY out the window.

    Thoughts? Linkies??

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