Every English teacher aims to teach her or his students proper English by explaining numerous grammar rules and instructions on how to properly use certain words. Reviewing these rules can bring back memories of grade school. Unfortunately, for the English teachers, not all grammar rules are covered. Additionally, much of the English language is not learned through rule, but through daily usage. This can often lead to grammar confusion, such as improper use of the words “good” or “well.”
Good vs Well: Why Confusing?
How many times have you been asked, “How are you?” If things are going well, how do you answer? Do you say “I am good,” which is a common answer among native English speakers? Or do you say “I am well,” which is probably not commonly used?
If you use the former response, you might be teased by grammar Nazis. However, the joke is on them and “I am good” is actually proper English. But why do so many people believe “I am good” is improper English?
Based on the general grammar rules, only adverbs should modify verbs. Therefore, “well” would be the proper modifier of the verb “am.” Likewise, only adjectives should modify nouns and “good” is an adjective. As a result, sticklers for grammar think “I am good” should be incorrect since an adjective is being use to modify the verb “am” in this sentences. However, the grammar rules aren’t so simple.
Knowing which word to use in the “well” vs “good” debate revolves around an understanding of how action verbs are different from linking verbs. As the name implies, an action verb represents an action, and it is only an action verb that should be modified by an adverb. For example, the following phrase is proper English: “He climbs well.” It would be improper to say “He climbs good,” because an adjective cannot be used to modify an action verb.
Linking verbs use a different rule and are verbs that work to connect other words together. For example, “am,” “is,” “are,” "was” and “were” are linking verbs. Think of linking verbs as forms of “be.” It is proper English to use the word “good” to modify a verb as long as it is a linking verb. For example, “We are good” is proper English. In situations like this, the word “good” is a predicate adjective and refers to the noun before the linking verb. So in this example, “We are good,” “good” is referring to “we.”
And coming full circle to our original example, “I am good,” the word “good” is modifying the noun “I,” not the linking verb, “am.”
Good vs Well: How to Use Them Correctly
The word “good” is an adjective, which is a word that modifies a noun. Here are three examples:
This is a good cake.
You told a good story.
That was a good game.
In these examples, "good" is modifying the nouns, “cake,” “story” and “game.” But recall the above discussion of how “good” can follow a linking verb as long as it is still modifying a noun. For example:
The cake is good.
The story was good.
The game was good.
The word “well” is an adverb, which is a word that modifies verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Here are three examples:
Did the team do well at the game?
You swing the bat well.
The ship was lost in a well-defined search grid area.
Good vs Well: Use Them Correctly as an Adjective
Now to add some further nuances to the “good” vs “well” grammar rules. Recall that “well” is an adverb and “good” is an adjective. However, “well” can sometimes act as an adjective when referring to health. The grammar rule says that when referring to health, use “well” and do not use “good.”
He did not feel well yesterday.
My cat does not look well.
When referring to an emotional state, “good” come sometimes act as an adjective. The grammar rule says that when referring to an emotional state, use “good” and not “well.”
He doesn't feel good about missing the last question on the test.
She felt good about passing the test.