badly and poorly

Regular commenter Rebecca asked me recently about Americans saying I feel badly. I wasn't so sure it was American, and the OED isn't so sure it is either, as they have it as 'dialectal' (which, for the OED, means 'British dialectal'). On the other hand, I was under the impression that saying I feel poorly was a British dialectal thing, yet I find in the American Heritage Dictionary that it's used in America too. But, looking beyond the dictionary dialect labels, there are arguably some differences here. I'll get to those in a bit. First, some probably unnecessary reflections on the adjectival status of badly and poorly, just to amuse myself.

What is funny about both of these words is that they are -ly forms being used unusually as adjectives, rather than adverbs. Funnier still is the very limited way in which we use them. Typical adjectives can modify nouns in two ways:

Attributively -- that is, within the noun phrase:
the sick parrot

Predicatively -- after a linking verb
The parrot is/seems/feels/smells sick

Poorly only goes in predicative position:
The parrot is/seems/feels poorly.

*the poorly parrot
(* always indicates ungrammatical/unnatural phrasings)
That's not so odd, since there are some other adjectives, like glad, that only like to be in predicative position.

But badly is funnier still. It doesn't like to be in attributive position, and seems only to go in predicative position after the verb feel:
I feel badly

?The parrot is/seems badly

*the badly parrot
Using badly as an adjective after feel creates an ambiguity between the adjectival interpretation and the adverbial interpretation:
The parrot feels badly
adjective reading: 'The parrot doesn't feel good.'

adverb reading: 'The parrot isn't good at feeling.' (perhaps because parrots don't have hands!)
Now, why would people go out of their way to add an -ly to the familiar adjective bad when (a) they don't need to, and (b) it introduces an unhelpful ambiguity?

I have two hypotheses. First, maybe people use badly after feel because they're trying to say the opposite of I feel well. Well is an adjective in that case, but it's also an adverb (as in The parrot sings well), and the opposite of the adverb well is badly. So, if you want to say the opposite of I feel well, then it might seem like you should say I feel badly. This could be considered to be a case of hypercorrection (see sense 2 in the linked Wikipedia definition).

My problem with this hypothesis is that I can imagine myself saying I feel badly, but not I am badly. It's hard to search for such things on the web (since you get lots of examples like I am badly dressed or badly in need of a haircut), but the two examples I've found of of I am badly meaning 'I am unwell' are both by French speakers using English--an interference error from French. If we're just using badly to match well, then it would stand to reason that one could say I AM badly, since one can say I AM well. But I can't find much evidence of native English speakers doing that.

My other hypothesis relates more to how I would use I feel badly--which may not be how everyone else uses it, so let me know if you're different. If I'm feeling unwell, I'd say I feel bad (or, if I'm trying to be misguidedly Britishy, I feel poorly). But if I'm regretting something, I might say I feel badly about killing your parrot. (Just an example--no parrots were harmed in the writing of this blog.) I feel badly is limited in this case to emotional states, rather than physical ones. It turns out it's not just my hypothesis, as I've just found this, which makes the same conjecture. Hm, should've done that bit of the research before writing all this.

Now this is NOT the sense of badly that the OED lists as dialectal in Britain. That one means 'unwell, indisposed'. They don't have a lot of examples of it, and the last one is from 1966. So, it looks like badly='regretful, hurt, otherwise emotionally unwell' IS an Americanism.

According to a 1993 addition to the OED, poorly has come to be euphemistically used to mean 'seriously ill'. I believe that this is specifically BrE. They give these examples:
1979 Guardian 31 Jan. 4/4 Last night Adrian was said to be ‘poorly’ in the burns unit of a hospital. 1988 Times 8 Jan. 2/7 Yesterday he was on oxygen and I was up with him all night. He hasn't needed oxygen today but he is still quite poorly. Ibid. 15 Nov. 3/6 Nine children were..still receiving hospital treatment... Two were in a ‘poorly condition’.
I nevertheless maintain that I was justified in using poorly to describe my post-Pimms hangover last weekend. I was verily hospitali{s/z}able.

So: Americans do you use poorly? If so, how sick is a person who is poorly?
And: BrE speakers, do you use badly? If so, is it an emotional or physical state?


  1. I bring glad tidings ...glad can be used attributively. Admittedly, this does seem to be an exception. The glad person brought the tidings? No, I see what you mean.

    I (BrE) wouldn't use badly myself, but have heard it used, describing a physical state, and would definitely consider it 'British dialectal'. Strangely, I can only recall hearing it used, and would only expect it to be used, in the past tense.

  2. Hmmm, interesting. Nice to see it all laid out and organised, unlike my question....

    The 'poorly' thing is interesting, too. I always say someone's 'poorly' when they might be at death's door. Americans, it seems to me, don't tend to say it, they say 'He's sick' instead. Whereas to me 'sick' only means 'vomit' not 'ill'.

  3. If Lady Bracknell's memory serves, "feeling badly" appears in Alan Garner's novel "Red Shift", but only in dialogue spoken by characters from Cheshire.

  4. I've heard "poorly" all my life - I expect it's a "regional" (meaning Southern) thing, but since I've not really lived anywhere else I can't say they don't say it elsewhere. "She's poorly" means "she's sick with some unspecified and not life-threatening illness that is more-or-less chronic", unless of course you say "she's poorly just now" or "I've been feeling poorly lately".

    "Badly" I wouldn't use at all, except if I were wearing gloves or something. "Bad" is standard, though.

    "Sick" for "suffering an illness" is standard, too. "Ill" might mean "sick" but it as often as not - and more back home, where my sister (an RN) always uses it with this meaning - it means "angry and disgusted". I always have to remind myself when reading British novels that "he was sick" means "he vomited" (which is generally that, or "he threw up" here) and "a pile of sick in the garden" just sounds weird.

  5. Feeling poorly (generally unwell) is a common occurence in Britain, slowly becoming dialect in the sense that it is not now in very common usage - you wouldn't hear it from current youth and not on the tv except in the technical sense of being poorly in hospital as you explained. But then medics have some problems with words: fit, for example means well or healthy to a medic, where I think it means having a capable heart-lung system, able to do physical work, sometimes fit (well, able, healthy) for a purpose or task.
    A leper feels badly, for the nerves don't work. I would feel bad about a mistake.
    How do words like goodly (a goodly sum) fit into this collection? Can goodly be used in oppostition to badly?
    I note that schoolkids now declare their friends to be the unspecified "away" rather than the slightly more helpful "absent" and only rarely describe fellow pupils as "ill". In the cases where illness is recognised as teh reason for absence, it is identified, so "off sick" is an unusual usage at secondary school, more likely to be "home with 'flu", "broken leg" and suchlike.

  6. Although I didn't grow up in the South (of the US), where I agree poorly is more common, my intuitions about what it means are definitely with the Ridger's.

    Strawman, idioms don't have to follow normal linguistic rules, hence 'glad tidings'.

  7. djs: I think the opposite of goodly is poor (but not poorly!). Which is to say, it doesn't really fit in with these. It's also a bit idiomatic. OED has no fresh examples after the 19th century. I could say a goodly sum or a goodly wage but not a goodly slice of beef, as one of the 19th c. OED examples has it. Nor could I say a poor slice of meat to mean 'a small slice of meat'--so it does look to me like goodly goes in opposite position to poor only where poor means 'small, insufficient'.

    Rebecca, as for sick and ill: it is true that if you say I feel sick it is more restricted to meaning 'sick to the stomach' in BrE than in AmE, but sick is used sometimes for general illness too--as djs's example of off sick shows. These are words that are very "touchy" in their application, though. Americans tend to use ill only for grave or chronic illnesses--e.g. mentally ill.

  8. I'm from New England, and I personally wouldn't use "poorly" much, if ever. But I think it might be a generational thing, as I can easily picture my dad using it (I'm ~25, my dad is ~60). I think I'm most used to it being used in the context of elderly people, like after they've had a stroke or something, or if they're just generally failing. So again sort of unspecified and more or less chronic.

  9. That's kind of like sickly, except we use that for the young more (He was sickly as a child). So, poorly seems to be about system failure and sickly seems to be about a bad system in the first place. Or at least, that's my intuition. Cheers!

  10. The only time I can think of using poorly is in reference to school - he is doing poorly in school.

  11. That's an adverbial use, so not the same thing as what we're talking about here, where poorly is used as an adjective.

    (That is, poorly is describing how he is doing, rather than describing him per se.)

  12. From a BrE point of view, I'd only ever use 'badly' adverbially in the case of actions, ie 'he drives very badly'. Of emotions and suchlike, I'd say, 'I feel bad'. I have come across 'poorly' used not in a predicative position (I think - I'm not a linguist, so I'm not too sure of the technical terminology). Example: 'Do you know Mrs So-and-So? She has the poorly son'. Maybe that's Lancashire or Scottish usage, though, via home or family.

    It's very interesting site, by the way!

  13. I remember the first time someone was ill in our Oxford office, after I'd joined in January 2003. The note went out to all employees saying that so-and-so "was poorly". I thought that was the strangest thing I've ever heard. My husband -- born in Swindon but has lived his adult life in London -- had never used the term before.

    Funny. Now that I've been here for 3+ years, it doesn't sound so odd to my ear anymore. But I don't use it.


  14. I think in the US the use of the word "poorly" for health seems to indicate advanced age and lower socio-economic levels. I've heard it mainly by old people in Tennessee, except when used as Anonymous suggested, to indicate ability.

    But here in the UK it's used across the board, or at least on Radio 4 where I hear most examples of British usage.

  15. "Badly" is used in Yorkshire dialect to mean ill or very ill. Probably old fashioned these days but it used to be fairly common in speech in the West Riding - "Ahm feelin' badly". More serious than being a "bit aht o' sooarts"!

  16. I understand "She's feeling poorly" to be old-fashioned AmE for "She's feeling bad because she's menstruating." It doesn't astonish me that some older Americans, for whom the subject was taboo, extended it to other kinds of survivable yuckiness.

  17. Poorly meaning ill was not an expression used in my (London-based)working-class family, or in my home towm (Hertfordshire) when I was growing up (1960s) and it sounded very odd to me too when I first heard it - I gained the impression it was a North of England term. I have the impression it is more common now, especially in hospital useage to describe someone. I have never heard "badly" used in a similar sense ...

  18. Well up here in Glasgow (Scotland, not Kentucky), we quite often use "sick" for ill in the US manner, but it does also get used in the "nauseous" sense. "Poorly" for unwell is rare here. I used it when playing Bri in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which was first produced in 1967. I was playing him as a northerner (Blackburn) but the original script is set in Bristol, in the south west of England. My intuition of it is that it is dated and English.

  19. This is fascinating discussion.

  20. Just today I saw what to my twisted mind is a very funny use of "poorly" in the wild, on

    [the subject is unusual incidents on London Underground trains]
    "On another occasion, equally long ago, a guard on the Bakerloo was called to attend to a man on his packed peak-hour train who "seems a bit poorly", according to the passenger raising the alarm. This man was also dead."

    This may be an example both of the use of "poorly" and of the use of, uh, understatement.

  21. I (Northeast US) have a completely different usage pattern for bad vs badly. "I feel bad" always means the emotional state. "I feel badly" just seems generally odd to me. I would construe it as the parrot lacking hands thing. Same with "badly". I can use "sick" to describe a general illness (I am sick) but not with "feel" in which case it would always be a reference to nausea (possibly figurative of course). I can say "I am ill" or even "I am feeling ill", but not "I feel ill". Given all this, the only non-participial "feel" sentence that sounds natural to me is "I don't feel well".

  22. Returning to this post, as per Lynne's request in a more recent one, I agree that "doing poorly" and "feeling poorly" are two very different animals - the first implies a serious illness, the second, a much more minor one.

    I might say, jokingly, to a family member who enquired, "Oh, I'm poorly sick today!" to which the response might be "Are you in bed with the doctor?" Or I might say to a close friend recovering from a minor injury "How's your poorly thumb?" or, more probably, "How's your poor sorely thumb?" (transposed from "poorly sore", it flows better!). But if they told me that a relation in hospital was doing poorly, or even that s/he was poorly, hospital-speak being what it is, I'd be most concerned!

  23. Coming from Yorkshire, I'd understand both poorly and badly as meaning not well (without any inherent implication of how serious) but they aren't terms I'd use myself. I think they're both getting quite dated. My gut feeling is to think of them as working class terms.

    Poorly sick (or the variation poorly sick and mardy, where mardy means in a sulk / whinging about it) is more of a light hearted stock phrase that still sounds local but not as dated. It would mean having an illness that was unpleasent to go thorugh but short term and not dangerous.

  24. I forgot to mention, an Anglican clergyman once told me that when he was doing a funeral visit his first question was always "Was s/he poorly?" At the time I took this simply to be an enquiry about the deceased's general health, but in the light of some comments here and on the sick and ill post I suspect he meant it in the sense of seriously ill for a long time.

  25. As Cameron mentioned above (ok, 2 years ago, but still valid), 'poorly' (when describing one's health) is rarely used in Scotland, certainly in my experience. I would never, ever use it myself - it's always struck me as a very English term.

  26. sorry for commenting so late in the game, but as you just linked this post on twitter I suppose it's alright.

    I just wanted to say that to me "I feel poorly" means something quite different from "I feel badly". The former means "I am unwell" whereas the latter means "I regret". Also, "*the poorly parrot" whilst ungrammatical, strikes me as being much more grammatical than "*the badly parrot". Similarly, one might possibly "be (a bit) poorly" but never "*be badly".

    It should be noted that I am an English speaker who uneasily straddles the Atlantic, my idiolect is equally informed by the BrEn parts of my life and by my CanEn parts of my life, so I have no idea if this comes from one or both of my linguistic heritages.

  27. I have never uttered the phrase 'I feel badly' in my entire life. Just hearing it in my mind makes me die a little inside, no matter how grammatically correct it may be. To my mind, it implies that my ability to feel is impaired. It doesn't describe how I am feeling.

    I would concur with Cameron and SpanishCow, though, about ScE using 'sick' for 'poorly'. The expressions I hear used on the wards up here are "I'm afraid your mother's very sick" or, much more commonly, the somewhat backwards "I'm afraid your mother's not well at all".

    In fact, I would say the most common term for being unwell/poorly/badly/ill/sick in Scotland is, indeed, not well (no' weil/well).

    'Poorly' generally used by doctors in its clinical sense of reacting poorly to treatment/doing poorly against prognosis.

  28. Addendum
    Even back in 1909, Ambrose Bierce was railing against the use of badly:

  29. Coming from the US, I would never use 'badly' to refer to feeling unwell. I would only use it for emotional distress. I could say, 'I fell badly about taking your food,' but I think I'd be far more likely to use, 'I feel bad about taking your food.' On the other hand, I could easily say 'I feel badly for you.' Interesting that in that context, 'badly' could be either an adverb or a predicate adjective:

    I feel badly for you. (I feel for you very much.)
    I feel badly for you. (I feel bad for you.)

    In terms of 'poorly,' I would use it when feeling decidedly unwell (probably with nausea), but not necessarily requiring a hospital visit. 'I really feel poorly right now.'

  30. I'm from north-west England originally (and have returned there) and 'poorly' for 'unwell' has been with me all my life. 'Badly' in the same sense is a slightly newer term for me, which I associate with the textile belt of south and east Lancashire and west Yorkshire. Lancashire also has 'gradely', often as 'right gradely', meaning 'very good.

    A Lancastrian might, I think, say "took badly' but perhaps not "took poorly". But I may be wrong.

  31. I am an American from New England and in the first 38 years of my life (until I moved to London) I never heard anyone use 'poorly' as an adjective, ever. The first 2 times I heard someone in the UK use 'poorly' to mean sick, neither of them pronounced the 'r' so I assumed I was learning a new word "pauly" which I gathered meant sick given the context.

  32. Maybe it's a US regional thing. In my northeast upbringing (NJ/NY), uni years in Michigan, and 20 years in CT -- never heard 'poorly' used to describe health/being unwell. I now love 'poorly' as used by our UK friends in that context - just seems a good descriptive word for feeling 'under the weather' (hmm - not sure where THAT comes from).

    Re 'I feel badly' -- despite your research and hypothesis, ALL my American grammar/English education, and family edicts - just no no no no no!!!

    My 88 year-old mother, who has Alzheimer's still told me just last week that a woman at the facility says 'I feel badly' and my mom says 'I want to correct her but haven't yet' -- because Mom is svery polite. I was taught 'I feel badly' is so wrong -- to me it means 'my fingertips don't work so they can't feel things' or some such. I'd still say 'I feel bad about your parrot's death' or whatever.

    Haven't heard any of our UK friends use 'badly' in any way. After reading this post, I think I should not be so (silently) critical/horrified when someone says 'I feel badly' - argh.

    Love your posts! Cheers.

  33. I grew up in the extreme west of the US, currently live on the west coast, and have spent significant time in the Midwest. Two days ago I was go-home-from-work ill. Today my coworker asked if I wanted to do lunch a little further away than usual and I said, "yes, unless I feel poorly again."

  34. Americans would say deathly ill or terminally ill, if it is life threatening. I live in the midwest, may be different elsewhere in US.

  35. From Arizona:

    One does "poorly" on an exam, one feels "bad" for another person or about an action, and when afflicted by an illness, one feels "sick" or "ill" or "under the weather". If the prognosis is hopeless, one is "terminally ill." If I suffer a non-specific malaise, I "don't feel well."

  36. I would never say I feel badly in the context of health because for me the phrase is reserved for another meaning : guilt

    To my surprise, the OED describes this sense as

    orig. U.S. to feel badly: to feel guilty, regretful, or sorry

    I was brought up in Nottingham — technically The East Midlands — and have lived in Yorkshire — most definitely The North. So poorly meaning 'ill' has always been familiar. Even so, I associate the word more with actual illness (She's poorly, for example) rather than subjective feeling.

  37. Small grandson last summer, then aged 3, had spent most of the morning lying on the sofa at a friend's house, occasionally complaining that he "felt poorly". However, he seemed to recover when his grandfather and I appeared, and we had no problem with him for the rest of the day - until he decided he didn't want to have a bath. At which point, resisting to the utmost of his strength, he reduced us to mild hysterics by screaming at the top of his voice: "BUT I'M POORLY!" as though it had anything to do with whether or not he should have a bath!

    1. And I noticed just yesterday that said small grandson, now within spitting distance of 5, has picked up the repellent "I'm good!" when asked how he is, rather than "I'm fine", or "I'm well". Since I have fought a losing battle on this one with his mother for many years, I suppose I am not surprised!

  38. I live in the north of England and it's fairly common when asking how someone is, who you know to be ill or suffering with something, to say "how's Mr X doing with his COVID? Is he ok or is he badly with it?"


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