Posted by: episystechpubs | May 16, 2013

Editor’s Corner: Good vs. Well

Last week, I received a question about when to use good versus well. To really understand the answer, I’m afraid we have to get into the grammar of it. Grammar Girl does a great job of explaining it at, though there’s nothing very quick about it. I’ve cut the article down here and there and reformatted it to make it a bit simpler.

It’s such a simple little question: How are you?

“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?”

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.

· Action verbs – They’re easy; they describe actions (e.g., run, jump, swim). To describe an action verb, use an adverb like well. For example:

o He runs well.

o She jumps well.

o They swim well.

Well is an adverb that relates to all of those action verbs.

Note: Do not use adjectives with action verbs. For example, “They swim good” is incorrect. The proper sentence is "He swam well," because swam is an action verb and it needs an adverb to describe it.

· Linking verbs – Less about actions and more about connecting other words together. The verb to be is the quintessential linking verb. The word is is a form of the verb to be, and if I say, "He is shy," the main purpose of is is to link the word he with the word shy. Other linking verbs include:

o seem

o appear

o look

o become

o feel

o smell

o taste

o etc. (There are at least 60 in English.)

One complication is that some verbs—such as the sensing verbs—can be both linking verbs and action verbs. 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.

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: You get "He is badly." So in that case you know that "feel" is functioning as an action verb.

It’s standard to use adjectives—such as "good"—after linking verbs. When you do it, they are called predicate adjectives, and they refer to the noun before the linking verb.

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. 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.”

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