Etymology Grammar Usage

All well and good, again

Q: You’ve written about “well” and “good,” but here are some examples that still aren’t clear to me: (1) “Is everything well/good with you?” (2) “I hope all is well/good there.” (3) “I’m well/good” with it. (4) “He feels well/good after surgery.” (5) “The wound has healed and he’s well/good.”

A: In most of your “well/good” examples, the verb is a form of “be,” which is a linking verb.

And linking verbs—“be,” “feel,” “seem,” “look,” and others—are generally modified by an adjective (like “good”), with one major exception.

If you’re speaking specifically about a person’s health—in the sense of being “well” as opposed to “sick”—then choose “well.”

That’s generally the situation today, according to most usage authorities, but the history of “well” and “good” is much more complicated.

We won’t get into the etymology now, except to say that “well” was used as an adjective back in Anglo-Saxon times in some of the ways we’d use “good” today. And it’s still used as an adjective in many common constructions.

Getting back to your question, most people would use “good” in examples 1, 2, and 3 (though 2 could also be used with “well,” as we’ll explain below). For examples 4 and 5, choose “well.”

If you’re still having trouble, try substituting “bad/badly” or “pretty/prettily” for “good/well,” and that might make things clearer.

As you mention, we’ve written several blog items about this business of “well” and “good,” including posts in 2009 and 2008.

The thing to remember is this: if your verb is a form of “be” (“is,” “am,” “are,” “was,” “were,” etc.) or another linking verb (like “feel” or “seem”), generally use “good” unless you’re talking about health.

But keep in mind that we use “well” adjectivally in many common idioms: “All is well at our house,” “All’s well that ends well,” “That’s all well and good,” “Blue looks well with that,”  “Is all well with you?” and so on.

The OED has many examples of “well” used as an adjective (rather than an adverb) in constructions like “all is well,” “it is well that we should walk humbly,” “it is well to remember,” “it is well that his errors have done no harm,” “it’s just as well to let it go,” “that’s all very well, but …,” etc.

On that note, we’ll end with a line (later echoed by T. S. Eliot) from Juliana of Norwich, a 14th-century English mystic: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Check out our books about the English language