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Good Vs. Well

August 18, 2021

Perhaps the most commonly asked question in English is this: "How are you?"

In North America, this question is often used as a greeting. As such, the person who asks the question does not always wait for or expect an answer. In fact, they may not even blink an eye if you give a classic answer like "I'm fine, thank you" or "I've been better."

However, when you're in a conversation with a friend, classmate, teacher, neighbor, or coworker, your interlocutor may be genuinely interested in your state of being at the time. Yet many people struggle with their answer because they want to be grammatically correct—they don't know whether they should use "good" or "well" if things are going okay, or "bad" or "badly" if things have taken a downward turn. 

When thinking about your answer, you may first want to consider these points:

  • "Good" and "bad" are adjectives and can modify nouns or pronouns. When you're describing people or things, use "good" or "bad."
  • "Well" and "badly" are adverbs and can modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. When you're describing the quality of how something is done, use the adverbs "well" and "badly."
  • However, as with so many areas of English grammar, there's an exception. When talking about health, "well" can be used as an adjective. 

So…is it "I feel good" or "I feel well"?
"I am good" or "I am well"?

Actually, both words are correct in each sentence, though their meanings differ somewhat. We use "well" to describe our physical well-being, whereas we use "good" to describe our mood or disposition.

Since "badly," unlike "well," can only be used as an adverb, the correct word to use in these two sentences is "bad": "I feel bad." "I am bad." But, at this point, you may be asking why we can't use an adverb, especially in the "feel" sentence. The answer has to do with linking verbs.

What are linking verbs?

Linking verbs are verbs that do not show any action. Many grammarians call them "states of being" verbs. Rather than showing action, they connect the subject to information that further identifies, describes, or renames it. In other words, they connect the subject to its complement. A linking verb tells you what the subject is, not what it does.

Common Linking Verbs:

  • all forms of the Be verb (when used as the main verb, not as an auxiliary)
  • 5 verbs related to the senses (taste, feel, sound, look, smell)
  • verbs such as seem, grow, become, turn, etc.

Linking verbs are followed by adjectives, not adverbs. Here are some examples:

  • The pie smells delicious.
  • The coffee tastes bitter.
  • The band sounded good. 
  • The teacher became angry when the students laughed at him.
  • Marcos seems sad today.
  • Amir feels bad about his mistake.
  • Suyin has been absent for three days. She must feel sick.

Notice in the last example that "feel" is followed by the adjective "sick" because it is describing how Suyin is. However, feel, along with taste and smell, is not always considered a linking verb. If you have a cold and a stuffy nose, you may say "I smell badly." However, if you say "I smell bad," you should probably take a shower. Likewise, if you feel bad, you are either sick or you have regret or remorse. If you feel badly, on the other hand, you have lost the ability to feel. Unless you are numb, you don't feel badly.

So, back to our original question: How are you? As previously noted, "I am good" is not only an acceptable answer, but also a correct one. But, as soon as you change the verb to a non-linking verb in your response, you must choose well: "I am doing well." (The main verb is do in this sentence, which is not a linking verb.) If you say "I am doing good," you are commenting on your philanthropy.

One final note: Don’t use an adjective when you need an adverb to describe how something happened or the manner of it.

  • The plane landed safely. (not safe)
  • People drove more carefully (not more careful) during the rainstorm than they normally do.
  • She plays the piano really well. (not good)

Hopefully, you can now answer the question "How are you?" with confidence. We welcome your comments below.

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Comments (4)

Sara O.(Teacher)

Very useful post. Thank you!

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Sara,

I'm so glad you liked it. Thanks for your comment.

Reply to Comment

Cristina A.(Teacher)

Useful
Clear
Wonderful review
I liked very much

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Cristina,

I'm so happy you found it useful!

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