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February 16th, 2005

Feel strong or feel strongly? / good vs. well / the grammar of if you were me

by Barbara Wallraff

This week brings a heaping helping of grammar. Did you know that the word “glamour” comes from “grammar”? Grammar is more intriguing than many people think!

William H. Corba, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., writes: “Recently you covered the subject of feeling ‘bad’ or ‘badly.’ You said the right word was ‘bad,’ because ‘feel’ is a linking verb in this case. Does the same rule apply in ‘I feel strong (instead of “strongly”) about my opinion’?”

Dear William: Good question, but no. “I feel strong,” of course, means something like “It seems to me I am strong.” Here “feel” is a linking verb, just as it was in “I feel bad.” But “I feel strongly about my opinion” means “My feelings are strong” about it or “I have strong feelings.” This time “feel” is serving as an “intransitive” verb; it works the same way that “read” does in “I read carefully.” A third common kind of verb is (take a guess) “transitive.” “Feel,” and also “read,” can be transitive too. A transitive verb has a noun object -- as in “I feel your pain” or “I read newspapers.”

Does this seem unnecessarily confusing? The thing to bear in mind is that nobody ever sat down, developed a plan for English, and then followed through. Only after English was in use did anyone try to describe the ways that verbs and other parts of speech work. Terms like “linking” and “transitive” and “intransitive” are nothing more than labels for the things your mind is already doing when you use a word like “feel” in different ways.

Sue Poullette, of Middleton, Wis., writes: “I appreciated your recent Q and A about ‘bad,’ but I would have liked to see ‘good’ versus ‘well’ also talked about. Is ‘He doesn’t feel well’ becoming accepted? I don’t like saying that. I prefer to say ‘good,’ as I was taught.”

Dear Sue: It depends on what you mean. If you’re focusing on the state of someone’s health, “well” is actually the preferred word: “He doesn’t feel well. He has a cold.” But if you want to include the person’s state of mind, comfort level and so on, you’re quite right that “He doesn’t feel good” is the way to say it.

Jane Bersche, of Pontiac, Mich., writes: “You recently discussed the phrase ‘if you were me,’ and said you would use it even though it is not grammatically correct. I think it is correct. I was taught to use ‘I’ when I am the subject of a sentence and ‘me’ when I am the object of a sentence. Isn’t that right, and isn’t it the case here?”

Dear Jane: To take your two questions in order, yes, but no. The verb “be,” in its varied forms (such as “were” and also “am,” “are,” “is” and “was”), is a linking verb whenever it is followed by a noun or pronoun or an adjective. Nouns or pronouns that come after linking verbs are not objects but “noun complements.” In effect, these are restatements of the subject. For example, think of the grammatically correct “This is she.” Now contrast that with a sentence like “She reads books,” in which “books” is an object. The object doesn’t tell you about who she is but about what she reads. This may seem unnecessarily confusing, too -- but, again, you already recognize the difference between these kinds of sentences. The tricky part is describing how they are different, as I hope I’ve managed to do.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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