The Goodly, The Badly, and the Uglily

My sister, knowing my appreciation for grammatical authoritarianism, posted the following video on my Facebook page.

Far be it from me to criticize a fellow Grammar Nazi, but if you’re going to get yourself worked up into a lather about badly grammar, you shouldn’t do such a badly job of it.

His first mistake is to presume that it’s inappropriate to say “I feel bad” because the word “bad” is always synonymous with the word “evil.” If that were the case, I would be an evil tennis player; milk past the expiration date would go evil, and George Lucas would have made three evil Star Wars prequels. (I actually agree with that last one.)

Irregardless*, the guy goes on to state that “I feel badly about that” is the correct way to express badly feelings. As evidenced by my misuse of said term three times in previous sentences, “badly” is not an adjective. That little “ly” attachment transforms the adjective “bad” into the adverb “badly.” When you describe yourself as feeling bad about something, you are using the adjective “bad” to describe the subject of the sentence: you. Adjectives modify nouns, not verbs. “Badly” is an adverb, and adverbs do, in fact, modify verbs. So “badly” does not describe you; it describes your feeling capacity. If you feel badly, then there is something wrong with your sensory inputs.

If you doubt this, notice that you may feel hot, but not hotly; sad, but not sadly, and pregnant, not but pregnantly. And who can forget that classic James Brown hit, “I Feel Goodly?”

Speaking of goodly…

Most members of my church can cite verbatim the first part of the first sentence in the Book of Mormon. It goes something like this:

“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…”

This has been the subject of countless sermons about how goodly it is to have goodly parents. It is virtually canonized in songs our young’uns sing every Sunday.

“We have been born, as Nephi of old, to goodly parents who love the Lord…”

Mormons have all bought the idea that “goodly,” therefore, is synonymous with “good.” (To confuse the point I made earlier, “goodly” is, in fact, an adjective here, despite the “ly” attachment. It’s an ugly truth that not all words with “ly” are adverbs. Witness the adjective “ugly,” for instance. I wish the English language functioned more consistently and less uglily, because that would be goodlier than what we have now.)

With that said, if “goodly” means “good,” then why not use the word “good?” Nephi, the guy who calls his parents “goodly” says it was a “good thing” that the children of Israel were brought out of bondage. (1 Nephi 17:25) After he built his ship, he tells us that “my brethren beheld that it was good.” According to, the word “Good” appears 205 times in the Book of Mormon, and it always means what you think it would mean. The word “goodly,” however, never appears in the Book of Mormon again after that first verse.

Of course, you could argue that Nephi never used the words “good” or “goodly,” because the Book of Mormon is a translated document. But if you did that, you’d be playing right into my evilly hands, because “goodly” would therefore be reflective of the translator’s vocabulary, not the author’s. And what did the word “goodly” mean to Joseph Smith in 19th Century America?

The clue is in the next word after the clause in question.

“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore…

Aha! The word “therefore” establishes causality. The goodliness of Nephi’s parents led to some result, which is revealed in the subsequent clause.

“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father;

Nephi’s parents’ goodliness allowed for Nephi to receive a stellar education. How does one receive a stellar education? One pays through the nose for it using one’s goods. “Goodly,” in the 19th Century, meant “laden with goods,” or “wealthy.” But that screws everything up.

“We have been born, as Nephi of old, to wealthy parents who love the Lord…”

I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t have the same ringly to it.


Truth in Bad Poetry
The Science of Resurrection

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