The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (Grammar)

America is an incredibly diverse culture. As diverse as we are, though, we seem to have one thing in common: none of us is immune to getting tripped up when it comes to whether we should say “good” or “well.”

For years, the problem was that people said “good” when they should say “well.” For example, it’s incorrect to say, “I did good on my test.” Similarly, in response to the question, “How are you doing?” the answer should not be “I’m doing good.”

Fair enough. In general, people tend to replace adverbs with adjectives, as in “Without my glasses, I just can’t see clear” (it should be “clearly”), or “Run quick and fetch my screwdriver” (it should be “quickly”).

But something particularly crazy has happened with the whole good/well fiasco. Suddenly, the air is filled with, “I’m not well at it” and, “It doesn’t look well on you.” I have heard it on television, on the radio, and in conversation. Hmmm.

It seems that in an effort to avoid using “good” inappropriately, some people are now using “well” inappropriately. To help stop the madness, I have put together this quick and easy good/well review.

“Good” is an adjective. To use “good” correctly 99% of the time, you just need to remember three things:

1. Adjectives can modify nouns or pronouns. Examples:

  • “We drank some good wine with dinner.”
  • “He landed a good job in advertising.”
  • “Sally is a good girl.”

2. Adjectives can describe the condition of the sentence’s subject. Examples:

  • Cookies are good.
  • I am good at sports.

3. Adjectives are used with linking verbs such as “look,” “feel,” “smell,” and “taste,” to describe a state of being. Examples:

  • That suit looks good on you.
  • I feel good about my household budget.
  • That chili smells good, and I hope it tastes good, too.

Numbers 2 and 3 above are, I think, the places where people run into trouble. We know that we’re not supposed to say “Sally is a well girl” – that sounds as if she’s in charge of drawing water from the village square. But depending on what you mean to say, you can construct correct sentences using “well” in the same position as I have used “good” in the examples above. So how do we figure it out?

To figure it out, we’ll need to know just two things about “well.”

1. Most of the time, “well” is an adverb. Adverbs usually end in “-ly” and modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Compare the following to #1 above:

  • The wine complements the steak well.
  • He had done well at his interview.
  • Sally plays well with others.

2. When “well” means “healthy” or “satisfactory,” however, it is an adjective.

  • Bob stayed home because he didn’t feel well.
  • All’s well that ends well. (In this example, the first “well” is an adjective meaning “satisfactory,” while the second is an adverb modifying “ends.” Cool, huh?)

In essence, for linking verbs, your usage reveals what you’re trying to describe. When you say, “That suit looks good on you,” you’re describing a state of being, not an action. You mean that the suit is flattering. The suit is not doing anything; it is simply being flattering.

However, when you say, “Make sure you look well for your keys,” you are describing an action. You are suggesting that the person look carefully and thoroughly for the keys; you are describing the manner in which the person should look for the keys.

One more example. If you wish to convey sympathy, it is correct to say “I feel bad for you.” (I suspect that the good/well shenanigans began when people started to say “I feel badly for you.”) Again, you’re describing sympathy, which is a state of being. When a person says “I feel badly for you,” it doesn’t make sense. Just like the adverb in the example above, “badly” here would describe the manner in which the person is feeling. It would mean that you are bad at the action of feeling or that you’re unskillful at feeling. It’s the opposite of what the person means to say.

States of being versus actions: this distinction seems to be at the root of all personal development. Our struggle to distinguish “good” from “well” may be a symptom of our larger cultural search for meaning.

If we could just learn to separate “good” from “well,” perhaps we would clearly see the difference between being and doing in our lives. And with that knowledge, perhaps we would learn to spend more time being well and doing good.

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