Are You “Good” or Are You “Well”?

 

When someone asks how you are, do you answer, “I’m good,” or “I’m well”?

Is one response more grammatically correct than the other?

Everything Is “Good” and “Well” Until Someone Gets Upset

Part of my job as a freelance editor is to stay abreast of language and grammar styles. That’s not as easy as it might sound—language is always changing to accommodate its users, which is why applying grammar “rules” can be quite challenging at times.

A few weeks ago, I read this on Twitter:

Whenever I ask someone “How are you doing?” and they respond “Well” instead of “Good” I’m like “Oh [explitive] I’m surprised they let you leave Harvard without making you the dean”[sic]

Who knew the difference between responding “I’m good” and “I’m well” was such a point of contention?

That tweet received more than 2,600 likes and was shared 378 times.

Commenters came down passionately on both sides of the discussion; here are a few of my favorites (including the verbatim grammatical errors):

  • When you know the difference … responding with “good” is like someone asking you what your favorite color is and answering with the time it says on the clock.
  • i know the difference and i say “good” when i want to connect with another human and “well” when i want to show off that i am smart and better than/good enough … [sic]
  • 
Superman does good. You are doing well.
  • Aha, my dear Watson, we’ve discovered pretentiousness in its most elemental form!

Another commenter included a link to an article published on BusinessInsider.com titled “Why Saying ‘I’m Good’ Is Correct, and Anyone Who Says Otherwise Is a Fool.” Wow! People certainly have strong opinions about this subject, don’t they?

The article’s premise is that saying “I’m well” relies on the idea that modifying a verb requires an adverb. But the article clearly misses the point that the word “well” in this response is being used in its adjectival form.

Yes, of course well can be used as an adverb, but in this case it is clearly being used as an adjective—very much like saying, “I am tall.” Both are adjectives, not adverbs.

Calling in the Big Guns: Time to Check with an Expert

So is the tweet poster correct? Is it pretentious to say, “I’m well” when responding to the question “How are you?”

I decided to do a little research and find out what a language and grammar expert has to say.

One of the reference books I use in my work is Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press), and a favorite feature is his Language-Change Index rating for a particular word or phrase’s usage. Those include:

  • Stage 1: A new form emerges as an innovation (or a dialectal form persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage. (School-Grade analogy, Stage 1 = F)
  • Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage. (School-Grade analogy, Stage 2 = D)
  • Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage. (School-Grade analogy, Stage 3 = C)
  • Stage 4: The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts. (School-Grade analogy, Stage 4 = B)
  • Stage 5: The form is universally accepted. (School-Grade analogy, Stage 5 = A)

Garner’s doesn’t directly address the “good vs. well” debate in reference to how one is, but includes this explanation:

  1. good for well (as an adverb) in reference to personal performance (as in the team played good): Stage 2
  2. good for well (as an adverb) in reference to the functioning of inanimate things (as in the engine runs good): Stage 3.

Using those clues, I’m inclined to think “I’m well” isn’t as pretentious as it is perhaps a throwback to a time when you might ask, “To whom am I speaking?” It isn’t wrong, or even pretentious, but merely a bit old-fashioned for many of today’s communicators.

Who knew the difference between responding “I’m good” and “I’m well” was such a point of contention? Click To Tweet

As I wrote in the beginning of this piece, language is always changing. Take for example the ever-more-common use of the plural pronouns they and them as an informal singular or a gender-neutral pronoun. Many prescriptive grammarians are resistant to this usage; according to Garner, “Disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they’re irreversible. And nothing that a grammarian says will change them.”

Whether your response is “I’m well” or “I’m good,” you’ll always have detractors who will tell you the choice is grammatically incorrect. My answer: It’s up to you. Do you want to use prescriptive grammar or ride the wave of common usage?

Remember the original tweet that got this started? My vote for correct grammar goes to the commenter who wrote,

“I’m from the South. The correct answer is, “Fair ta middlin’.”

 

What is your response when someone asks you how you are? Do you say “I’m well” or “I’m good,” or do you fall back on “I’m okay” because you’re never sure which is correct? Please share your favorite response in the comments.

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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, and writing coach for fiction and nonfiction. She works with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. Learn more at her website https://changeitupediting.com, and follow her on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

6 thoughts on “Are You “Good” or Are You “Well”?”

    1. I never think to use one of those. I tend to hesitate while deciding if I should say “I’m well” or “I’m good.” I think I’ll try “I’m great” in the future—it sounds even better!

  1. I have a neighbor who always answers “I’m doing well.” She also tells her dogs to “go lie down.” Makes me feel bad since I’m the writer, but it feels unnatural for me to speak that way.

    1. I suspect many people believe they sound more educated using some words versus others … the same theory that produces “The plans fell to Jim and I.” After saying something incorrectly for so long, it sounds correct!

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