In the adverb corner, coming in at 6 feet zero inches, the Transplant from Scranton, the Hellaware from Delaware, the 47th vice president of the United States: Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.: “I don’t think I treated her badly.”
And in the adjective corner, coming in at (yikes) 5 feet 2 inches, the High Priest of Pop, the Late Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince: Prince Rogers Nelson: “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”
Only one can triumph.
Last week’s presidential campaign launch has given Biden plenty of airtime and apology time, as many have demanded answers about the way he (metaphorically) handled Anita Hill in the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, and the way he (literally) handled many of the women he’s met over his long political career. He uttered “I don’t think I treated her badly” in an interview on The View.
But also: “If I made anyone feel uncomfortable,” he said in a pre-campaign interview a few weeks back, “I feel badly about that.”
Biden uses badly with both the verbs treat and feel. But as we’ve been hearing for weeks, the candidate needs to watch his feels a little more closely.
Feel can be an action verb (“she feels the table”) or a linking verb (“he feels happy”). As an action verb, feel gets a direct object: the table. But as a linking verb — which links a subject and predicate together, typically with “to be” or some kind of sense (feel, seem, taste) — feel is more likely to be followed by an adjective (happy) that describes the subject. Action verbs are followed by adverbs, while linking verbs get adjectives. If you need a mnemonic, just remember that action and adverb have the same number of letters.
In “I don’t think I treated her badly,” treat is an action verb, and her is the direct object — so he used badly correctly. But when he said “I feel badly,” he was using feel as a linking verb, meaning that he should have said he feels bad, not badly. If he “felt badly,” he’d be saying that he is not good at feeling. Given how Biden was brought to tears by Meghan McCain in the same interview, few would say he’s not good at feeling.
(The hosts on The View did take Biden to task for another grammatical foible: his use of passive voice in saying, “I am sorry she was treated the way she was treated.” As I’ve written before, it’s a common way to deflect responsibility.)
We have a plethora of linking verbs, but unfortunately for Prince — who was just a pup at the start of his career when he released “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” in 1979 — treat isn’t one of them. Despite the single’s unrelenting funkiness, an adverb works better here: “Why you wanna treat me so badly?”
At least Prince is in good company. The error is common, especially for positive adjectives and adverbs. How many times have you asked someone how they are, and they’ve responded — incorrectly — “I’m well”?
Prince and the rest of us would be wise to follow the grammatical example set by one of his funk and soul progenitors, and simply say, “I feel good.”