Good vs. Well, Bad vs. Badly

By Maeve Maddox

Do you cringe when you ask someone “How are you?” and the person replies,
“I’m good”?

Why?

Perhaps, like me, you are expecting the response to be “I’m well, thank you,” and the “I’m good” offends your expectations.

However, if your complaint is that good is an adjective and well is an adverb, you’re on thin ice.

The fact that well is the adverbial form of good is irrelevant because in this expression, both good and well are being used as adjectives.

Good and well function as more than one part of speech:

The diner is noted for good food. (adjective)
A true statesman is dedicated to the common good. (noun)

You speak French well. (adverb)
He was ill, but now he is well. (adjective)
Life is like a well. (noun)

As an adjective, well is usually used to mean “sound in health,” or “recovered from sickness.” An earlier sense of “prosperous” survives in the expressions “well to do,” and “well off.”

One of the numerous meanings of good is “morally commendable, virtuous.” This definition is invoked by speakers who wish to ridicule the “I’m good” response. For example, in an episode of 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan corrects another character who has said “I’m good” this way: “Superman is good; you’re well.”

Another meaning of good is “satisfactory, unimpaired, not depressed or dejected.”

Although the “I’m good” response still strikes many ears as colloquial at best, it is not ungrammatical.

Speakers who object to the usage are free to avoid it in their own speech, but they may wish to refrain from ridiculing its use in the speech of others.

While we’re at it, this may be a good place to mention a common error with the adjective bad and its adverbial form badly.

Here are some incorrect uses of badly from the web:

Facebook makes us feel badly about ourselves.

I think awards just make the other kids who didn’t get awards feel badly.

Maybe her intention isn’t to make you feel badly, and you’re making yourself feel badly.

I guess I just sometimes feel badly for my extrovert kids.

These are all from commenters and amateur bloggers, but even professional writers fall into the error:

People who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it. –John M. Grohol, Doctor of Psychology

You must never feel badly about making mistakes…” –Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

In each instance, the expression should be “feel bad,” not “feel badly.”

Badly is an adverb. It must be used with a verb that expresses an action.

Feel can be either a linking verb or an action verb, but when it is used in the sense of experiencing an emotion, it is a linking verb and takes an adjective to complete it: “I feel bad.”

As an action verb, feel means “to handle” or “to touch.” For example, a person who “feels badly” would have trouble learning to read Braille.

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6 Responses to “Good vs. Well, Bad vs. Badly”

  • G.Torres

    Just one observation: the correction Tracy makes in 30 Rock is…

    “I do good”
    “Superman does good, you do well”

    Which is correct, I think.

  • Olly Rundell

    This is an interesting article. I think it’s worth investigating, though, the fact that people have an instinct that ‘well’ is being used as an adverb in the context you mention. What came to mind is the idea that both “How are you?” and “I am well” are missing a historical verb which people still instinctively feel is there (e.g. “How are you doing?”). Here the form of ‘to be’ is possibly not a copula form that would take an adjective but an auxiliary verb. Further evidence might be that the question word used is ‘how’ (though maybe it could be used to elicit an adjectival answer too). Anyway, these are just idle thoughts. What do you think?

  • Aaron Van Son

    Thanks for posting this! I had always been suspicious of the grammatical incorrectness of “I’m good.” That said, I feel like there was a bit of a stretch in this post regarding the example of well (n). That’s a homonym and not at all the same word; “well” as used throughout the rest of the post does not have a noun form, if I’m not mistaken.

  • Maeve Maddox

    G. Torres,
    You’re right. I got the quotation wrong. It makes more sense with “do.” Btw, I got it right three years ago: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/doing-good/

    Olly Rundell,
    You make an interesting observation. Maybe those of us who react to the “How are you?” “Good” exchange do think of the question as elliptical for “How are you doing?” In that case, “well” is the response we’re expecting.

  • David Kariu

    I actually dread the reply ‘OK’. But in my country, Kenya, what else would you expect. Grammar and expression are a pain to most people over here.

  • Tom

    I had this argument with my freshman comp professor many years ago (he’s now my best friend). “Well” has two meanings. It is the adverbial form of “good,” but it is also the antithesis of “ill,” and in that usage it functions as an adjective. In the sentence, “he was sick but then got well,” the word does not mean “good”; it means “in good health.” I would argue that this second meaning is not a subset or variant of the first but a distinct, additional definition.

    For me, the other issue discussed here — bad vs. badly — is a far greater problem. Nothing grates on me more than to see an educated writer or speaker use the “I feel badly” construction, and it is invariably those who should know better – reporters, TV hosts, editors, screenwriters, etc. – who employ this unnatural and incorrect usage. However, nothing is a better indicator that the person who commits this mistake is making a conscious effort to sound “intelligent.” It’s sad that so few seem to realize that they have made fools of themselves.

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