English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Usage Word origin

“Good-paying” or “well-paying”?

Q: Wish you would address “good-paying job” versus “well-paying job.”

A: We’re taught that “good” is an adjective, not an adverb, so it shouldn’t be used to modify a verb or another adjective.

That, in a nutshell, is why many people regard “good-paying job” as inferior to “well-paying job.”

They think a verb form like the participle “paying” should be modified by “well,” an adverb, not “good,” an adjective.

However, language authorities say “good” has been used as an adverb or a quasi-adverb since the Middle Ages, and this adverbial usage wasn’t criticized until the latter half of the 19th century.

In fact, the phrase “good-paying job” doesn’t strike us as bad English—informal, perhaps, but not incorrect.

It seems more natural and idiomatic than the stiffer, consciously correct “well-paying job,” especially in speech and casual writing.

Although many people consider “good-paying job” an acceptable idiom, “well-paying job” is more popular in edited writing, according to a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books. [Note: Updated Nov. 16, 2020.]

We believe that in “good-paying job,” the word “good” is being used idiomatically as an adverb to modify the present participle “paying.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage agrees, noting that “good” has been used as an adverb since the 13th century, and that this adverbial use wasn’t criticized until the 19th.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t go that far, but it describes a category of usages in which the adjective “good” is used “in quasi-adverbial combination” with present participles.

Such a combination, the OED says, is “used adjectivally”—that is, the combined phrase modifies a noun (like “job”).

While the OED says that “in none of these instances is good adverbial in origin,” it nevertheless sometimes functions as an adverb.

There are other common usages in which “good” plays an adverbial role, though in most of them the OED stops short of classifying the word as an adverb:

● The adverbial phrase “as good as.” This modifies a verb or an adjective and means the same as an adverb like “practically.” Examples: “He as good as confessed” … “The victim was as good as dead.”

● Phrases like  “a good long time,” “a good sharp knife,” “a good many people,” and so on. Here, “good” acts as an adverb like “very” or “properly.” It modifies the adjective and serves as an intensifier.

● The phrase “good and.” This colloquial expression is an adverbial phrase that intensifies, as in “his hair was good and red” … “until we’re good and ready.”

● The phrases “for good” (as in “he left for good”) and “but good” (“you socked him but good”). These adverbial idioms can be compared to “finally” and “well.”

Merriam-Webster’s, which calls “good” an adverb when it functions as one, says English speakers of all educational levels use “good” adverbially. 

“Our evidence shows that adverbial good is common in the speech of the less educated, but is also known and used by the better educated,” M-W’s editors write.

Ironically, they add, “The schoolmasterly insistence on well for the adverb may have contributed to the thriving condition of adverbial good.”

We can imagine a couple of reasons why “good-paying job,” in particular, seems natural to many.

(1) “Good” has other forms—“better” and “best.” There’s nothing at all wrong with “better-paying job” or “best-paying job.” So why not “good-paying job”?

A critic might argue that “better” and “best” are adverbs—forms of “well”—when used with participles like “paying.” (In fact, the OED does categorize them as adverbs when so used.)

But isn’t this a circular argument?

If one calls “good” a misused adjective in “good-paying job,” then why aren’t “better” and “best” adjectives when used in the same expression?

We could just as easily call all three—“good,” “better,” “best”—adjectives being used informally in an adverbial way to modify the participle “paying.”

(2) We use the adjective “good” in phrases like “good-looking boy” and “good-tasting pie,” so why not in  “good-paying job”?

A critic might answer that “look” and “taste” are grammatically different from most verbs. They’re known as linking verbs, which are modified by adjectives like “good” instead of adverbs like “well.” (We’ve written about linking verbs before, including posts in 2012 and 2010.)

Here we would respond that when “good” modifies the participle of a linking verb (as in “good-looking,” “good-tasting”), it’s clearly an adjective—not an adverb.

But when it modifies the participle of a non-linking verb (“good-paying”), then it’s being used informally as an adverb.

We admit that “good-paying” is informal English. So do the editors at Merriam-Webster’s, who suggest that “adverbial good is still primarily a speech form.”

“Our evidence,” they write, “is mostly from reported or fictional speech, letters, and similar breezy and familiar contexts. It is not likely to be needed in a book review or a doctoral dissertation.”

We’ll end with an example of the usage from a 1936 letter by Archibald MacLeish, the poet and Librarian of Congress: “It pays good and keeps the boys in school.”

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