Doing Good

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A reader has asked me to comment on the following sentences:

Didn’t they do good……. The boy did good.

The word good has numerous definitions and nuances. I started to count all those listed in the OED entry, but gave up, there were so many.

The chief use of good is as an adjective: Read any good books lately?

It is also frequently used as a noun: Political leaders should consider the common good.

A few special constructions exist in which good is used adverbially: He as good as told me he was quitting.

Besides being ungrammatical, using good to modify a verb creates ambiguity.

The sentences “Didn’t they do good” and “The boy did good” suggest that “they” and “the boy” were occupied in doing good works.

In one of my favorite scenes in the television show 30 Rock, Tracy Morgan asks someone “How are you doing?” When the other character responds “Good. I’m doing good!” Tracy fixes him with a disapproving stare and says

Superman does good. You’re doing well.

If “they” and “the boy” are not “doing good” in the sense that Superman and Habitat for Humanity do good, then the good is being used incorrectly.

One way to improve these sentences is to replace the adjective good with the adverb well:

Didn’t they do well? The boy did well.

If this use of “well” sounds too stuffy for conversation, then the sentences could be rendered as

Didn’t they do a good job? The boy did a good job.

As language descriptivists would tell us, good is often used as an adverb in conversation. This is true. I use it myself at times, in fun, or to convey praise without seeming sentimental. Ex. You done good, Son! Nevertheless, speakers and writers aiming at standard usage acceptable to a wide audience do well to avoid this construction.

Bottom line: Using good to qualify a verb is still considered by most style-conscious writers to be nonstandard usage, best reserved for use as a character marker in fiction to indicate class, region or educational level.

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12 thoughts on “Doing Good”

  1. Thank you, thank you! I was gritting my teeth, wanting to point out that “The boy did good” was too nearly correct. Properly, it should be “The boy done good”, that is, so bad (done and good are both misused!), that the statement is immediately recognized as a hackneyed phrase, rather than standard usage.

    The other one I have been toying with was willy nilly. I came across a version will-he, nil-he once, that is, whether he wants to or not. And that makes sense, to me, of the whole thing.

  2. Another word that bothers me in this way is ‘fast’ — I realise that it is listed as an adverb in the dictionary, but I can’t help but feel that it should never be used as an adverb where ‘quickly’ could be used.

    For example:
    “He drove the car fast” vs. “he drove the car quickly.”

    Compare with:
    “He drove the car good” vs “he drove the car well.”

    What do other people think about the word ‘fast’?

  3. Good point here in Mexico there’s always been a confusion of what is right to say Do or Make, Good or Well? I think it would be really handy If you state the difference with a clear explanation for non-native English speakers ;and as for “do good” I would use it like this: This aspirin will do you good as opposite of doing harm, an do well I think it can be used when you get well paid or good grades at school

  4. hey Daniel,

    I’m a follower at Daily Blog Tips, and just found this one. Very excited about this site.

    On “good” – The other problem is that this word, like “interesting” “nice” and “great”, are boring.

  5. Rod,

    “This aspirin will be a good remedy to use for your ache or headache.” – I think that is quite clear and likely close to proper usage. Good = ” of benefit”. I think we get used to implying a lot of words when we stick “good” into a sentence; rather than completing the expression we leave several words out.

    Well, when the topic deals with injury or illness, will usually carry the “wellness” meaning, instead of “Timmy, get a bucket of water from the well; don’t fall in. Lassie, watch him!” or “His presentation was quite clear and precise, and his proposal is now well understood.” I think there is a lot of difference in meaning of “well” between “He is well paid, now,” and “He is well, now.”

  6. Here in England to use ‘good’ as an adverb is a sure sign of an illiterate, or of someone attempting to sound ‘cool’ by imitating street slang, and hence most likely to be heard on the lips of the under-thirties. It is guaranteed to grate on the ears of most British English speakers.

  7. The difference is usage is well-illustrated by the witticism about the early missionaries to Hawaii, who became the founders of some of the major fortunes on the Islands.

    “They came to do good, and did very well indeed.”

  8. While we’re talking about good, what about “My bad!” Is anyone else driven up the wall by this infantile expression? Even Alex Trebek, on Jeopardy, says “My bad” now. Ugh!!!

  9. To help my clients and students remember when to use “good” and “well,” I ask them to remember this phrase: “Good writers write well.”

    When asked, “How are you doing today?” you can answer “I am doing good” or “I am doing well.” If you answer “I am doing good,” you declare that you are doing something that can be characterized as goodness, as opposed to evil. You are using the word “good” as a noun in this response. However, you were not asked to describe what you are doing but how you are doing, so you need to describe the action of “doing.” You need the adverb “well.” Thus, the correct response is “I am doing well.”

    Isn’t language fun?

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