Episode 51: April 20, 2007
Today's topic is well versus good.
It's such a simple little question: How are you? But I've heard from people who feel a twinge of trepidation or even full-blown frustration every time they have to decide whether to say they're good or they're well.
“I'm good” is what you're likely to hear in general conversation, but there are grammar nitpickers out there who will chide you if you say it. The wonderful news is that those nitpickers are wrong: it's perfectly acceptable to say, “I'm good,” and you shouldn't have to shamefully submit to teasing remarks such as the time-honored and leering, “How good are you?”
Say "I'm Good" with Confidence
The nitpickers will tell you that well is an adverb (and therefore modifies verbs) and that good is an adjective (and therefore modifies nouns), but the situation isn't that simple.
The key is to understand how linking verbs differ from action verbs. (Trust me, this is worth it so you can look people in the eye and say, “I'm good,” with absolute confidence.)
First, let's talk about action verbs. They're easy; they describe actions. Verbs such as run, jump, and swim are all action verbs. If you want to describe an action verb, you use an adverb like well. You could say: He runs well; she jumps well; they swim well. Well is an adverb that relates to all those action verbs.
Linking verbs, on the other hand, are a little bit more complicated. Linking verbs aren't about actions as much as they are about connecting other words together (1, 2). They're also sometimes called “copulative verbs.”
I think of the verb to be as the quintessential linking verb. The word is is a form of the verb to be, and if I say, He is yellow, the main purpose of is is really just to link the word he with the word yellow. Other linking verbs include seem, appear, look, become, and verbs that describe senses, such as feel and smell. That isn't a comprehensive list of linking verbs—there are at least 60 in the English language (1)—but I hope that will give you an idea of how they work.
One complication is that some verbs—such as the sensing verbs—can be both linking verbs and action verbs (2, 3). A trick that will help you figure out if you're dealing with a linking verb is to see if you can replace the verb with a form of to be; if so, then it's probably a linking verb (1, 4). For example, you can deduce that feel is a linking verb in the sentence He feels bad because if you replace feels with the word is, the sentence still makes sense: He is bad. On the other hand, if you have a sentence such as He feels badly, and you replace feels with is, it doesn't make sense anymore: He is badly. So in that case you know that feel is functioning as an action verb.
Why Saying "I'm Good" is OK
OK, so now you understand the difference between linking verbs and action verbs. That might seem like a detour on the way to learning why it is OK to say, "I'm good," but it's important because the thing people seem to forget is that it's standard to use adjectives—such as good—after linking verbs (5, 6). When you do it, they are called predicate adjectives, and they refer back to the noun before the linking verb. That's why, even though good is primarily an adjective, it is OK to say, "I am good": am is a linking verb, and you use adjectives after linking verbs.
Aside from the linking-verb-action-verb trickiness, another reason people get confused about this topic is that well can be both an adverb and a predicate adjective. As I said earlier, in the sentence He swam well, well is an adverb that describes how he swam. But when you say, “I am well,” you're using well as a predicate adjective. That's fine, but most sources say well is reserved to mean “healthy” when it's used in this way (1, 3, 4). 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.”
Finally, it's very important to remember that it's wrong to use good as an adverb after an action verb. For example, it's wrong to say, “He swam good.” Cringe! The proper sentence is He swam well, because swam is an action verb and it needs an adverb to describe it. Remember, you can only use adjectives such as good and bad after linking verbs, you can't use them after action verbs.
In another episode I'll discuss the difference between bad and badly.