Saturday, January 08, 2011

Thurber Tonight: The Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage: IX. Adverbial Advice


It is wise to resort to exclamations, such as "Help!," Hey!," etc.

This brings to a close "The Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide," which we've had in its entirety. To find the earlier installments, follow the link below to the "series to date" guide. -- Ken

The Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide
to Modern English Usage

IX. Adverbial Advice

Someone has written in to ask whether to say "I feel bad" or "I feel badly." The question is not so easy as it might seem. Your conscientious grammarian will find out, if he has time, just what is the matter with the person who makes the inquiry, or whether anything is the matter. No one wants to just go ahead and advise a person to say either "I feel bad" or "I feel badly," much less to say both of them, because in so many cases the ailment is purely imaginary. Even if it isn't, solicitude for those who love us and who suffer when we suffer should prevent us from talking about our troubles. Yet that attitude has its drawbacks, because some people cannot suffer in silence, or even imagine they are suffering in silence, without making strange grimaces. This is likely to lead to misunderstandings and unpleasantness. Merely saying nothing, then, is scarcely the best way to avoid the use of "bad" or "badly." On the other hand, the grammarian is reluctant to advise a person who really feels bad, or badly, to say that he feels fine. This might, for one thing, revive that old wall-card about "every day in every way I am getting better and better," an expression the world is well rid of. Physically, it was never really true, and rhetorically it was nothing much.

The thing comes down finally to the necessity for special rules. As a general thing, if the illness or pain really exists, and is acute, it is better to use the shorter word "bad," because it is more easily said and will bring assistance quicker. Furthermore, "badly" sounds as if the person who had used it had deliberately chosen a euphemism and therefore couldn't be very sick. In cases of sharp, flashing pains, blind staggers, acute heart attacks, or extreme danger generally, it is wise to abandon all adverbial constructions and resort to exclamations and interjections, such as "help!," "Hey!," "hi! hi!," "halloo, there!," and the like.

The use of "I feel bad" and "I feel badly" is rather common in married life, particularly in cases where a husband wishes to stay home from a bridge party. Many husbands also use the expressions merely to gain sympathy or attention, but as a rule they prefer some more ominous statement, such as "I think I am dying, dear," or "I guess it's all up with me, Marian." Cold applications or a stiff lecture on the hygiene of eating and drinking will sometimes serve to shut them up.

There is, of course, a special problem presented by the type of person who looks well even when he doesn't feel well, and who is not likely to be believed if he says he doesn't feel well. In such cases, the sufferer should say, "I look well, but I don't feel well." While this usage has the merit of avoiding the troublesome words "bad" and "badly," it also has the disadvantage of being a negative statement. If a person is actually ill, the important thing is to find out not how he doesn't feel, but how he does feel. He should state his symptoms more specifically -- "I have a gnawing pain here, that comes and goes," or something of the sort. There is always the danger, of course, that one's listeners will cut in with a long description of how they feel; this can usually be avoided by screaming.

This can usually be avoided by screaming.

Another adverbial construction which gives considerable trouble, or will if you let it, is the adverb ending in "-lily." The best thing to do with the adverb in "-lily" is to let it alone. "Lovelily" is an example. You can say "he plays lovelily," but even though the word is perfectly proper, it won't get you anywhere. You might just get by with it at a concert; but try shouting it at a ball game. There isn't one person in ten who will go ahead with a friendship in which the "-lily" adverbs are likely to recur. The possible endings of this sort are numberless: you can even say, and be right, "heavenlily" and "ruffianlily." It is especially advisable to avoid this construction because of its "Thematic Potentiality." Thematic Potentiality is the quality which certain words and phrases have of suggesting a theme song -- that is, some such thing as "Heaven Lily O'Mine," "Rufiian Lily, Come Back to Me," "Love Vo-deo-do Lily," and so on. Think of something else.

TOMORROW TONIGHT: "The Day the Dam Broke" from My Life and Hard Times

THURBER TONIGHT: Check out the series to date

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