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Good vs Well: One of Grammar’s Toughest-Fought Battles

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When one asks how you are, do you respond that you’re good or well? The “correct” answer has been the subject of one of the loudest debates in all of grammar.

Some posts about grammar are very easy to write. Others are not. This one took a great deal of refining, because, as it turns out, what is often regarded as a wrong answer isn’t necessarily wrong!

“How are you today?”
“I’m good.”

That little exchange, simple as it is, could make a grammarian cry thanks to the incessant battle of good vs well. It sounds normal enough, but it’s wrong, says the grammarians. The correct answer would be, “I’m well.”

The reason for this line of logic is simple: good is an adjective and well is an adverb. Adjectives describe nouns and adverbs describe verbs. I know, I know, it already sounds confusing. Bear with me.

Let’s set aside that little exchange for a moment and consider this pair of sentences:

He loves to read a good book.
He reads well.

Good modifies book, a noun, so good is an adjective. Well modifies reads, a verb, so well is an adverb.

That much is fairly simple.

But let’s compare apples to apples:

He does good.
He does well.

In these two simple sentences that both contain the same subject and verb, good and well may seem interchangeable to some, but they technically have different meanings. In the first sentence, “doing good” can refer to being kind to others or doing positive things in the world, while “doing well” is more likely to be understood to mean succeeding or prospering.

The two aren’t truly interchangeable, though, because while some may use good when they mean one is prospering, no one is going to use well in that manner when they mean one is performing acts of kindness.

Grammar guidelines attempt to make it easy to sort through which one to use:

  • With the four senses, use good to describe the persons or things being sensed, and well to describe the person using the sense.
  • When referring to health, always use well.
  • When describing someone’s emotional state, use good.

With those differences in mind, let’s go back to that opening greeting:

“How are you?”
“I am good.” or “I am well.”

The obvious answer should be, “I am well,” because well refers to health.

If you want a simple, cut and dried answer, that’s it. Use well.

If, on the other hand, you’re still not satisfied, and you still insist on the liberty to use good in that scenario, it requires a deeper look into the construction of the sentence. Brace yourselves: here’s one of those rare cases where the grammar police may get very upset with me. Because it’s not so wrong to use good in that manner.

That simple three word sentence, “I am good” contains the verb am, which is a form of the verb “to be.” It is a linking verb, not an action verb. And that’s where things get a bit more complicated. English allows us to use adjectives and adverbs after linking verbs. In “I am good,” when good is used to mean “I am in good health,” good becomes a predicate adjective. (I told you it gets complicated.)

Even well can transform from an adverb to a predicate adjective. Consider these:

She looks well.
She looks good.

In the first sentence, well is an adjective when it’s being used to describe someone’s health: well applies to the pronoun She, not the linking verb looks. In the second, good is an adjective referring to one’s appearance (but not necessarily their health). Though they communicate somewhat different things, in both cases, good and well are valid predicate adjectives.

And the predicate adjective argument is precisely where a grammarian’s argument for the use of the adverb well over the use of the adjective good unravels:

“How are you?”
“I am well.”

Well, in this case, is a predicate adjective, not an adverb. That’s because even though it follows a verb, that verb is a linking verb that points well to I.

Over at Quick and Dirty Tips, a great grammar resource, Mignon Fogarty, the “Grammar Girl,” offers this suggestion:

“So if you are recovering from a long illness and someone is inquiring about your health, it’s appropriate to say, ‘I am well,’ but if you’re just describing yourself on a generally good day and nobody’s asking specifically about your health, a more appropriate response is, ‘I am good.’”

And there you have it.

Good vs Well: One of Grammar’s Toughest-Fought Battles
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