Feel positively or feel positive? Why the New York Times made the wrong call

“Many older adults said they feel positively about their lives,” the New York Times reported recently.

That sentence probably sounds as acceptable to you as it did to the Times editors. But what if they wrote instead: “Many older adults feel happily about their lives”? The structure is identical, but suddenly the grammar seems wrong. The adjective “happy” would seem like a better choice — many adults feel happy — than the adverb. So “happily” makes a good test of whether the New York Times’ sentence required an adverb or an adjective.

Well-informed people can disagree about whether the Times should have used “positive” instead of “positively.” But in my view, they made a mistake. They should have used the adjective “positive.” To understand why requires a quick look at which verbs are modified by adverbs.

We were all taught in elementary school that adverbs modify verbs and adjectives modify nouns: Happy adults sing happily. That’s true, but there’s more to the story.

There’s a whole category of verbs that take adjectives, not adverbs, as their complements. They’re called copular or linking verbs, and they either refer back to the subject or deal with the senses.

The most common copular verb is “be,” along with its conjugated forms including “is,” “am” and “are.” Native English speakers understand intuitively that “be” works differently from other verbs. Think about these sentences: He is nicely. We are hungrily. I am sadly. In every case, an adverb comes after the verb and in every case that’s obviously the wrong choice. All those sentences need an adjective: He is nice. We are hungry. I am sad. That’s because the verb “be” is a copular verb. It refers back to the subject. And because subjects are nouns or pronouns, they’re modified not by adverbs but by adjectives.

And there's more. Here's my recent column on which verbs take adjectives instead of adverbs.

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