Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

grammar & usage

DEAR MR. LEDERER: Please clarify the distinction between bad and badly. My question is especially relevant now that recently accused politicians are “feeling badly.” Isn’t that what got them in trouble? – De Vee Lange, Scripps Ranch

The adjective bad, meaning “unpleasant, unattractive, unfavorable, spoiled,” is the usual form following such linking verbs as look, smell, sound and taste, as in “The contents of the refrigerator smell bad.”

After the linking verb feel, the most common adjective is bad, although “feel badly” is frequently seen and heard, especially with the meaning of “I regret”: “I feel badly that I let you down.”  While this represents an admirable attempt to differentiate physical ill being (“I feel bad”) from emotional ill being (“I feel badly”), “feel badly” has been disparaged for more than a century.

Ask the offended why they object, and their voices will slip into the tonal groove that the joke has worn for itself: “If you feel badly, your finger tips must be numb or you’re wearing thick gloves.” Har-de- har — but for a great number of people this disapproval is very real.

You might attempt to explain to the finger waggers that the badly in “feel badly” is not an adverb but an adjective, in the manner of costly, elderly, friendly, kindly, sickly and more than a hundred other adjectives that wag –ly tails. But they will still feel strongly (ahem!) that feel badly is somehow wrongheaded.

Therefore, I advise you to feel bad, rather than badly.

DEAR MR. LEDERER: The top story in a recent U-T references a court case on tax initiatives as “so unique” according to an attorney. Why can’t people learn that there are no degrees of uniqueness? Either something is unique or it isn’t. –Vic Tanner, San Diego

Etymologically, unique, derives from the Latin unicus and is related to the likes of uniform, unit, unify and united, all of which mean “oneness.” Logically, then, if unique means “one of a kind,” it can’t be modified. Something cannot be more unique, quite unique or very unique, despite the army of ad writers who spew hyperbole. I have even read adpeak that gushes, “They’re so unique they’re almost one of a kind!” Gasp!

I’m aware of the argument that there really is no such thing as an absolute adjective. For example, our Declaration of Independence was written “in order to form a more perfect union.” How can something perfect be “more perfect”?

Still, I urge you, dear readers, to preserve the uniqueness of unique to describe something that is not just unusual, but truly one of a kind.

DEAR MR. LEDERER: I have been hearing and reading more and more examples of usage that I think is incorrect, for example, “A gang of thieves were arrested yesterday.” I think gang is the singular subject of the sentence, so it should take the singular verb was instead of the plural were. I learned that “of thieves” is a prepositional phrase modifying the subject gang. Is this an example of common usage altering the language? Jim Cunning, San Diego

 Thanks for your perspicacious question and grammatical acuity. You are correct in your analysis, but a bubble off plumb in your conclusion about subject-verb agreement.

In American English the collective noun gang (along with the likes of committee, faculty, group and team) takes a singular verb when the collective is considered a single unit. But when the collective noun is modified by a prepositional phrase with a plural object (here thieves), the proximity of that plural emphasizes the members of the group as individuals and generates a plural verb (here were).

DEAR MR. LEDERER: I get so confused when I have to use lose or loose, even after I have looked for help from online dictionaries. -Ruby Santos, San Diego

Which Hood was careless?: (a) In tight situations, Robin Hood would lose arrows. (b) In tight situations, Robin Hood would loose arrows. The answer is that, misplacing his weapons, the first Hood is careless.

Loose, most commonly an adjective meaning “relaxed,” can also appear as a verb meaning “to let loose.” That’s probably why loose gets confused with the verb lose, meaning “to miss from one’s possession”: “The lawyer didn’t lose her cool when she loosed an attack on the plaintiff’s loose allegations.”