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The “I’m good” outrage is nonsense
This is such a common complaint that I’m only going to offer a single example of it, and leave it up to you whether you want to waste part of your life looking up other examples. From the BBC’s idiotic list of “Americanisms”: 16. “I’m good” for “I’m well”. That’ll do for a start. There is nothing wrong with “I’m good”. And yet, this is the sort of grammatical myth that not merely persists, but pervades. One of my best friends in college ragged on me for it. One of my current friends (an English teacher no less) subtly corrects me for it regularly. There are a few reasons why people might think that I’m good is incorrect. The most prominent, the one I’m often given as justification, is that good is an adjective and well an adverb. That’s all well and good, but am is a conjugated form of to be. To be is a linking verb here, which means that it takes a predicative adjective, not an adverb. We say things like I’m hungry, not I’m hungrily. An adjective is what you need here, without question. Of course, well isn’t only an adverb; it can be an adjective as well. That leads to the next argument against I’m good: that good is an adjective, but it’s the wrong adjective. For instance: When you ask an American: “How are you today?”, they say: “I’m good” (Meaning: I’m a good person) when they should use “I’m well” (Meaning: I’m fine or healthy or something like that). But to get the “I’m a good person” meaning out of I’m good, you have to try to misinterpret it. Sure, saying I’m good can be interpreted as “I’m not evil”, but that’s far from the only possible meaning, and it’s hardly the most reasonable. I don’t want to be condescending, but even a nonnative speaker of English is aware that good has a lot of possible meanings. Here are two from the Oxford English Dictionary: 1. Of persons, as a term of indefinite commendation. 2. Such as should be desired or approved, right, satisfactory; sound, unimpaired; not depressed or dejected. Those senses of good, which date to 1154 and 1175, respectively*, are more likely intentions when responding to “How are you?” than an unsolicited assertion that one is a moral human being. To say that the “moral” meaning is either the only acceptable one or the most reasonable one in this context is to say that you do not have a good grasp of the English language.
So I think that that establishes why I’m good is acceptable, and really does mean “I’m fine”. But perhaps I’m well is more acceptable? Hey, maybe for you it is, and if it is, godspeed. But for me, the two forms have significantly different meanings, and in general I mean to say that I am good when I say I’m good. I’m well means that I am healthy, which I almost always am if I’m wandering around talking to people. When people ask, “How are you?”, they’re not, in general, inquiring about your state of health but rather your state of mind. Thus I respond that I am good, in that second definition above, feeling right, satisfactory, unimpaired, and neither depressed nor dejected. I do not respond that I am well, because I think that’s pretty obvious, and if it’s not obvious I’m well, it’s likely because I am unwell. I think that most people feel the same; when my friends tell me that they are good, they tend to follow up with something like “I got a new video game” or “I’ve been enjoying this weather”, indications not of good health but of good feelings. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t say that you’re well; you are welcome to. This is only why I don’t say I’m well. I want to talk about two similar situations — I’m feeling good and I’m doing good — as well as whether I’m good is too vague, but I’ve gone on long enough. I’ll put that stuff together in a later post. Summary: I’m good is correct, because am is a linking verb, taking an adjectival predicate, and good is that adjective. I’m good means that one is fine, in good spirits, etc. I’m well is fine too, but I find it to focus more on one’s health than general state of being. — *: And, of course, they’re attested through the modern day.
Today's topic is well versus good. It's such a simple little question: How are you? But I've heard from people who feel a twinge of trepidation or even full-blown frustration every time they have to decide whether to say they're good or they're well. “I'm good” is what you're likely to hear in general conversation, but there are grammar nitpickers out there who will chide you if you say it. The wonderful news is that those nitpickers are wrong: it's perfectly acceptable to say, “I'm good,” and you shouldn't have to shamefully submit to teasing remarks such as the time-honored and leering, “How good are you?”
Say "I'm Good" with Confidence
The nitpickers will tell you that well is an adverb (and therefore modifies verbs) and that good is an adjective (and therefore modifies nouns), but the situation isn't that simple. The key is to understand how linking verbs differ from action verbs. (Trust me, this is worth it so you can look people in the eye and say, “I'm good,” with absolute confidence.) First, let's talk about action verbs. They're easy; they describe actions. Verbs such as run, jump, and swim are all action verbs. If you want to describe an action verb, you use an adverb like well. You could say: He runs well; she jumps well; they swim well. Well is an adverb that relates to all those action verbs. Linking verbs, on the other hand, are a little bit more complicated. Linking verbs aren't about actions as much as they are about connecting other words together (1, 2). They're also sometimes called “copulative verbs.” I think of the verb to be as the quintessential linking verb. The word is is a form of the verb to be, and if I say, He is yellow, the main purpose of is is really just to link the word he with the word yellow. Other linking verbs include seem, appear, look, become, and verbs that describe senses, such as feel and smell. That isn't a comprehensive list of linking verbs—there are at least 60 in the English language (1)—but I hope that will give you an idea of how they work. One complication is that some verbs—such as the sensing verbs—can be both linking verbs and action verbs (2, 3). A trick that will help you figure out if you're dealing with a linking verb is to see if you can replace the verb with a form of to be; if so, then it's probably a linking verb (1, 4). For example, you can deduce that feel is a linking verb in the sentence He feels bad because if you replace feels with the word is, the sentence still makes sense: He is bad. On the other hand, if you have a sentence such as He feels badly, and you replace feels with is, it doesn't make sense anymore: He is badly. So in that case you know that feel is functioning as an action verb.
Why Saying "I'm Good" is OK
OK, so now you understand the difference between linking verbs and action verbs. That might seem like a detour on the way to learning why it is OK to say, "I'm good," but it's important because the thing people seem to forget is that it's standard to use adjectives—such as good—after linking verbs (5, 6). When you do it, they are called predicate adjectives, and they refer back to the noun before the linking verb. That's why, even though good is primarily an adjective, it is OK to say, "I am good": am is a linking verb, and you use adjectives after linking verbs. Aside from the linking-verb-action-verb trickiness, another reason people get confused about this topic is that well can be both an adverb and a predicate adjective. As I said earlier, in the sentence He swam well, well is an adverb that describes how he swam. But when you say, “I am well,” you're using well as a predicate adjective. That's fine, but most sources say well is reserved to mean “healthy” when it's used in this way (1, 3, 4). So if you are recovering from a long illness and someone is inquiring about your health, it's appropriate to say, “I am well,” but if you're just describing yourself on a generally good day and nobody's asking specifically about your health, a more appropriate response is, “I am good.” Finally, it's very important to remember that it's wrong to use good as an adverb after an action verb. For example, it's wrong to say, “He swam good.” Cringe! The proper sentence is He swam well, because swam is an action verb and it needs an adverb to describe it. Remember, you can only use adjectives such as good and bad after linking verbs, you can't use them after action verbs.
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