‘Good’ vs ‘well’, And When to Use These Words

Alex Johnson
May 27, 2020 ·
6 min read
Vocabulary
Writing

One of the challenges of language is getting an understanding of what is correct. But then, what is correct is not always what people actually say.

A classic example in English is when differentiating between the words ‘good’ and ‘well’. The fact is, the vast majority of native English speakers have evolved their communication in a way that the incorrect usage of these words has become commonplace. But then, if that’s what everyone actually says, is it really incorrect anymore?

That argument is interesting, but for another day. For now, let us look at the difference between ‘good’ and ‘well’.

‘Good’

The word ‘good’ is an adjective, and therefore qualifies a noun. Here are some classic examples:

‘Melanie is a good person.’

‘Today was a good day.’

‘Wow, you’re a really good dancer.’

As an adjective, then, ‘good’ should not be used to describe an action.

And another thing. When ‘good’ is used as an adjective to describe a person – ‘Jane is good’ – then is means the opposite of evil. Therefore, it has quite a moralistic sense, in that you are reporting that Jane is a person who lives in the correct way. This is a narrow interpretation, but the original one. 

‘Well’

‘Well’ is an adverb, and should therefore be used to qualify a verb. Here are some typical examples:

‘I did really well on the exam.’

‘I thought you played really well today.’

‘Maria spoke well at the presentation.’

‘Well’ is used after the verb to describe how the action took place.

However, ‘good’ can be used with stative verbs such as ‘be’, ‘looks’, ‘sound’ and so on to make totally logical sentences:

‘Jane is good.’ (as we saw before, meaning a ‘good person’)

‘Jane is good at dancing.’

‘That cake looks good.’

‘That idea sounds good.’

The classic ‘good’ vs ‘well’ mistake

Mistakes when using ‘good’ and ‘well’ are usually grammatical: an adjective is being used when an adverb is, in fact, correct. Here is a classic mistake:

‘You did good today.’ – ‘You did well today.’

Now, people may say this, but it is definitely not correct to do so.

‘Well’ as an adjective

Just to confuse matters, ‘well’ can also be an adjective meaning ‘healthy’, either physically or mentally. Here is an example:

‘Jacinda is a well person.’

The meaning of this sentence is that Jacinda is a healthy person. Of course, the opposite is ‘unwell’, meaning ill. 

As a result of this, it is therefore common for English speakers to have this following exchange:

‘How are you?’

‘I am well, thanks.’

Originally, the question ‘How are you?’ would have linked solely to health, but now has a much broader meaning. Similarly, the answer, although traditionally only meaning ‘healthy’, can now also be interpreted as something much broader

Incorrect grammar or natural speech?

Another ‘mistake’, although it could be classified as natural English these days, is when people respond to the same question ‘How are you?’ with the reply ‘I’m good.’ 

Logically speaking, this is confusing, because if you interpret the original meaning of these sentences, then you would have the following short exchange:

‘Are you healthy?’

‘I’m a person who lives in the right way, and am not evil.’

Of course, this is not what people are actually saying, but shows how, both in meaning, and grammatically, how the norm has changed.

Therefore, when someone asks: ‘How are you?’ it is correct to say: ‘I’m well, thanks,’ but it has become acceptable in spoken English to use the reply ‘I’m good, thanks’, even if grammar traditionalists may not agree with this usage.

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