advice you can use — short and to the point — every Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017 technology  research  practice

  • Research & Writing

If I had a dollar for every time he’s heard Good, thanks – and you? in response to How are you?, I’d be writing this from a villa in Tuscany. (Or not writing it all, just sipping Negronis on a deck-chair by the pool.)

The grammatically correct response to how are you? is well, not good. Good traditionally refers to a moral, not a physical or mental, state. I’m good really ought to be confined to situations where you mean you are virtuous, good at something or well-behaved. (And not as a way of saying ‘no, thank you’ to an offer of food or drink.)

Well is both an adjective and an adverb; good is only ever an adjective (or a noun), and therefore it can’t modify a verb.

So, We did good means we effected works of charity and the like, rather than we did a good job. For that, you mean We did well, unless you want to be what Bryan Garner calls ‘unrefined’.

But this appears to be a losing battle: pass me another Negroni.

The battle is entirely lost with the verb to look. Classically, one would have said That colour looks well on you – but you would attract uncomprehending looks if you said that now.

There is still time to win the adverbial battle with constructions like Travel safe or drive clean. Safely and cleanly, please: it’s how you travel or drive, which demands an adverb to modify the verb. (Although drive clean is possibly justifiable if you mean clean as an adjective that describes a drug-free driver.)

Sometimes good is the right choice, however: with taste and smell, for example (where good isn’t so much an adverb as an adjective describing whatever is being sampled). You would use well if you were referring, though, to an expert wine-taster’s skill at sniffing and sipping.

Feel is trickier. Many insist that it’s OK to say I felt bad about having to fire her, but traditionally it’s badly. James Brown may have said I feel good! (and I wouldn’t change that song for all the Negronis in the world), but grammatically it should be well (even if that could also suggest feeling well in the groping sense). We still say I don’t feel well when we’re ill.

Robert Warren Fiske sums it up in his Dictionary of Unendurable English (2011): ‘People who use good where well should be are soulless speakers, hopeless writers.’

Next time: navigating social media

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)