The Grammarphobia Blog

All well and good

Q: If you’re tip-top and someone asks “How are you?” do you say “I’m well” or “I’m good”? Or, for that matter, “I feel well” or “I feel good”? I can never get these straight. Thanks, and I hope you’re feeling … um … super-terrific.

A: Some people who say “How are you?” object to hearing “I’m good” or “I feel good” in reply. But you can correctly say either “I’m well” or “I’m good,” and “I feel well” or “I feel good,” depending on your meaning.

Most usage guides will tell you that “well,” when applied to a person, means “healthy.” So if you said, “I’m well” or “I feel well,” you’d be talking about your state of health.

If you said “I’m good” or “I feel good,” according to these usage guides, you’d be talking about your state of being (how you felt in general). A dying person might say on his deathbed, “I feel good, knowing my affairs are in order.” He wouldn’t mean that he felt well.

Here’s the reasoning.

When health isn’t involved, adjectives (like “good”) are used instead of adverbs (like “well”) to modify linking verbs (like “is” or “feel” or “smells”). A linking verb is one that describes a state or condition rather than an action. That’s why we say “He smells good,” “It tastes good,” “He looks good,” and so on.

But adverbs (like “well”) are used to modify verbs showing activity (such as “skate” or “tango”). That’s why we say “He skates well” and “She tangos well.”

One way to remember this is to recall the song lyric “I feel pretty.” With a linking verb like “feel,” you use an adjective (“pretty”), not an adverb (“prettily”). Same with “is” and “smells” and “seems” and other linking verbs: “He is nice” … “They seem nice” … “That smells nice.”

In theory, you can “feel badly” when your sense of touch is awry, or “smell badly” when your nose is stuffed, but I’ve never actually heard anyone use those expressions in real life. (“Feel” and “smell” are action verbs here: they refer to the acts of feeling and smelling, not the conditions.)

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