Sunday, December 07, 2008

I’m Good, Thanks

Language Lady enjoys hearing from readers, and this topic came from one of them.

Dear Language Lady,
Help! Lately, when I bump into friends and ask how they’re doing, they tend to reply, “I’m well, thanks!” Well? Doesn’t “well” mean how they’re feeling after being sick? (And that is not what they mean.) Or is saying, “I’m good, thanks” – meaning things are going okay, I’m basically happy, etc.” ungrammatical? And if so, should I feel “bad” or “badly” about this faux pas?!
-- Desperately Seeking Clarification, Leyden, MA

Dear Clarification,

With 2009 now so close, it would not be good to start another year with continued confusion – and widespread confusion too – over “well” and “good.” The correct reply is, “I’m good, thanks” – and in saying that, I am sure to have readers who are already foaming at the mouth, pointer finger raised, grammatical explanation at the ready. And Language Lady welcomes all challenges!

It seems that people who say, “I’m good,” say it because that’s what is most common, and they either think it’s grammatically correct, or don’t care either way. But people who say, “I’m well, thanks” are being what is known in linguistic circles as “hyper-correct,” thinking that “good” is ungrammatical. (Of course, you can always say, “I’m FINE, thanks” and avoid the controversy all together.)

One staunchly pro-“I’m well, thanks” blogger, is a New Zealand preacher and Toastmaster writing as The District Grammarian; there he is, down at the opposite end of the world, bemoaning what he feels is the wretched growth in popularity of “I’m good, thanks” – and blaming it all on – of all people – Elvis Presley, whose 1956 song, “Love Me Tender,” (and not, alas, “Love Me Tenderly) is, according to him, the starting point of the whole improper use of the English adverb. Here’s a snippet from his column (

To the question “How are you”? I am sorry that the answer is increasingly “I'm good” even though no question has been made of your moral or ethical standards. The response you should be giving is “I'm well” (assuming you are). I'm just walking quick. Perhaps you mean quickly?

The well-intentioned grammarian is mixing apples with oranges here, and the difference is in the verbs. There are two types of verbs – action verbs, and non-action verbs – and each type comes with separate rules:

Let’s look at the District Grammarian’s sentence, “I’m just walking quick. Perhaps you mean quickly?” DG is right – the sentence should be, “I’m just walking quickly.” “Quickly” describes the verb, “walking;” any word that describes a verb is an adverb, and the adverb form of the adjective, “quick,” is “quickly.”

But the verb in “How are you?” is not an action verb; technically speaking, the verb “to be” (and forms, am/are/is/were etc.) is a “copulative” verb, meaning that it joins or links the subject with its “complement,” which is the word that comes after the verb that refers to the subject. For example: “She is my mother.” In that sentence, “She” and “mother” are the same thing; “she” is the subject, and “mother” is the noun complement. Now let’s take, “She is smart”; in that one, “she” and “smart” refer to the same person, so “smart” is the adjective complement.

Other copulative verbs are: act, appear, seem, become, remain, look, sound, feel, smell, taste, and grow. That is why we say, “Mmmm – that smells (or tastes) good!” or “He remained calm;” or “Your idea sounds good;” or “They seem angry.” All of those sentences are copulative (as funny as that may sound). Thus, the reply, “I’m good,” with the definition of “good” being, say, “cheerful; optimistic; amiable”, or even “free of distress or pain,” is that of the complementary adjective. (BTW, the definition that DG gives as being morally or ethically good is only one of the 41 uses of “good” listed in
This same question, from a blogger named Lisa, in Boston, who generally writes about everyday sorts of thing and not grammar, prompted a long thread of responses. She writes (

Oh grammar.
Yesterday a girl I work with tried to tell me that it's proper grammar to say "I'm good" when someone asks how I'm doing and that I'm wrong when I say "I'm well" because "well" is an adverb and "good" is an adjective. It seems that "well" functions as an adjective here, describing a state of well-being. Am I right? Spencer? Jenny? Somebody? I feel like my grammar is under attack.

Now, Language Lady readers, knowing what you have just read, what do you think? How would you reply? Here are some of the responses:

Maggie said...
ok, as an english major, and especially after being lectured on this numerous times by my department chair my entire 4 years of college, it's never ok to say "i'm good" when asked how you are. in fact, when i'm lax and it slips out in rare instances, I still look around, waiting for my dept chair to come beat me over the head with a copy of her little brown handbook (grammar) or strunk and white. don't ask.

Maggie said...
and by the way, it works the same in portuguese, you might point out. bad grammar to say "to boa" (i'm good) when someone asks you "como esta?" (how are you). you have to say "estou bem" (i'm well). so she loses in two languages, not just one.
Lisa said...
I actually pointed that out to her (she speaks Spanish). You would not say "Estoy bueno."

Anonymous said...
I hate to say it, but you were wrong. It's ok to say "I'm good." Good in this case functions as a predicate adjective. Furthermore - this is important - the "am" works as a linking verb, not an action verb as people often assume. "Grammar snobs are great big meanies"

Serge Levykin said...
The question "How?" should be answered with an adverb because it relates to a verb. "How does he swim?" - "He swims perfectly." "How do they talk?" - "They talk slowly." "How ARE you?" - "I AM well." The question refers to a manner of doing something. Questions relating to a quality pertaining to a noun should be answered with an adjective. "What colour is the sky?" - "The sky is blue." "What kind of a father is he?" - "He is good".

For a moment, Serge’s comment (and Serge is from Australia) came dangerously close to ruining my argument, and yet it goes back to the old copulative/action verb distinction: If you ask, “How does he swim?” Then “perfectly” or some other adverb – well, terribly, slowly – would be a correct reply.
But if you ask, “How does this taste?” you don’t say, “It tastes terribly,” but rather, “It tastes terrible (or good, bad, or awful)” because of the whole complementary adjective thing. In the question, “How are you?” the word “how” (technically an adverb, but not in this case) refers to “you” (a pronoun) and NOT to the verb “are,” which is merely there to link the “how” to “you.” Serge’s point about “how” being the manner of doing something applies well to swimming but not to a non-active state of being.

As for other languages, it’s like explaining to your kids why they can’t do something that their friend can: Other families--other rules. In Spanish, it’s true that the standard reply to “Como estas?” (How are you?”) is, “Estoy bien” (I’m well); in Portuguese, the question is usually phrased, “Como vai?” (How are you going?) and the response is “bem” (well) – but also, typically – “tudo bom,” i.e. “Everything’s good.” And since English is a West Germanic dialect, let’s look at German: “Wie geht es Ihnen?” means literally, “How goes it to you?” to which the standard positive response is, “Es geht mir gut,” or, “It goes to me good.”
So using other languages to justify English usage is no good (“good” as a noun).

Finally, then, which is correct: “I feel bad” or “I feel badly”? If Language Lady has made herself at all clear on this point, then you should be able to know. (Pause here to think, or hum “Jeopardy” tune.) Okay, time’s up:

If you chose “badly,” I’m sorry – you’re wrong. The “feel” in that kind of sentence is not an action verb, not the same as in, “He quickly felt the old dog’s matted fur.” In the “I feel (something emotional)” case, the subject, “I,” is followed by the linking-verb sense of “feel,” so a complement should follow that describes the subject; and since subjects are nouns or pronouns, the complement must be an adjective. So …

If you chose, “I feel bad,” you’re right! And I hope you feel good about that.