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A Word, Please: That's all well and good

December 25, 2010

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who answer the question "How are you?" with "I'm good" and people who send me e-mails to say how annoyed they are with all those other people.

It should be "well," these folks say, not "good."

This discussion is so common in my world that I can give an answer from memory and even cite my source from memory. My response goes like this: If you look up the word "good" in "Webster's New World College Dictionary," you'll see that, among its many definitions is "healthy." That's basically the same meaning as the adjective "well," which is commonly used to mean "in good health."

So if you're healthy and want to say so, you can choose "I am good." Of course, because the adjective "well" is more commonly used to talk about health and because so many people prefer it, it's a probably better choice. Still, "I am good" is a legitimate response to any health inquiry.

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But recently, I got an e-mail that turned this whole question on its head. A reader in Pennsylvania had written to ask about "the growing use of the word 'good' when 'well' is traditional." In my mind, I had already begun to pen my pat response when I got to the next sentence: "I keep hearing more people saying, as a response to 'How are you?' the ear-jangling reply 'I'm doing good.' Or to 'How is Johnny doing in school?' the reply 'He's doing good.'"

That's very different indeed. In fact, the issue this reader asked about deals with an altogether different part of speech. In this reader's example, "well" and "good" are being used as adverbs. But in the prior example, they're adjectives. Note: we're setting aside the noun form of "good" that means "good works" or "good things" and is grammatical in sentences like "Do-gooders like to do good."

"Well" is best known for its job as an adverb, so it's easy to forget it can also be an adjective. In "I am well" it's describing a thing — the pronoun I — so this is the adjective form that means "in good health." But in "I am doing well," it's not modifying a thing, it's modifying an action, and that makes it a different word: an adverb.

We all know that the adverb "well" is the best choice for modifying actions: Seth dances well (instead of good). Al is paid well (instead of good). But does that mean you can never use "good" to modify a verb, even in such a common idiom as "I'm doing good"?

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