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Last post, I argued that “I’m good” is a perfectly acceptable response to “How are you?”, because the linking verb am takes an adjective, and good is an adjective. “I’m well” is a fine response as well, although I personally prefer “I’m good” as it seems to refer more to my state of mind than my state of health.

In this post, I’d like to take a little extension into the related response, “I’m feeling good”. I’m also going to talk about its darker cousin, “I’m feeling bad” and explain the difference between bad and badly in this context. Originally, I’d hoped to talk about “I’m doing good” as well, but I’m going to shunt that off to yet another post.

Let’s start with “I’m feeling good”. In short, it’s fine, and here’s why. Feel is like be in that it can be a linking verb, taking a predicate adjective that modifies the subject. When one says “I’m feeling good”, good modifies I, not feeling. Some might argue that “I’m feeling good” is ambiguous (“content” vs. “moral”), but I just don’t see it, and anyway, I’m going to show that that ambiguity isn’t a big problem.

Going deeper on the adjective point, it might seem a bit weird to say that good describes how you are, not how you feel. Let’s compare the use of a somewhat clearer adjective/adverb pair: crazy/crazily. (1a) means that I’m a bit weird, whereas (1b) is itself a bit weird:

(1a) I’m feeling crazy. [adjective, modifies me]
(1b) ?I’m feeling crazily. [adverb, modifies feel]

What makes “I’m feeling X” a more grammatically interesting structure than last post’s “I’m X” is that, unlike with be, you can modify the verb feel with an adverb. (1b) isn’t ungrammatical; it’s just uncommon. Suppose, for instance, you’ve lost your autographed Harvey Haddix baseball in a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese’s. You dive in and start feeling around for it, but blinded by fear of losing the ball, you’re feeling crazily amongst the balls.

When you adverbially modify feel, it’s a different sense of the verb from the one that takes a predicate adjective. In “I’m feeling crazy”, the verb refers to one’s sense of interoception, one’s perception of oneself. In “I’m feeling crazily”, the verb refers to one’s sense of exteroception, one’s perception of the outside world.* (The exteroception verb sense can also take a predicate adjective, as in “gelatin feels squishy”.)

So if you’re concerned that “I’m feeling good” is ambiguous (i.e., are you moral or at ease?), you ought to fear ambiguity in “I’m feeling well” (i.e., are you talking about your intero- or exteroception?) just the same. Ambiguity is pretty unavoidable sometimes. As a result, there’s no grammatical reason not to say “I’m feeling good”, although it might not be standard depending on your age and dialect. And “I’m feeling well” is fine, too.

Moving on to “I’m feeling bad(ly)”, the standard contemporary form is I feel bad. However, I feel badly, though non-standard, is pretty common and pretty robust. In fact, at various times it has been argued to be the standard form; Charles Dod wrote a nice article in 1875 arguing that I feel badly was being used as the standard form, in order to avoid the supposedly ambiguous I feel bad. He continued by arguing that here badly was functioning as an adjective even though it looked like an adverb. His discussion raises some important points, many going beyond the mere adjective/adverb distinction:

The expression [feel badly] is needed; hence it is correct. We must allow the speaker to explain what he means, and not let the grammarians force upon him a meaning which he rejects. Let us then review our grammatical principles; if we cannot adjust the phrase to our principles, we must adjust the principles to our phrase. It is a fact, that respectable and well-educated people do say, “I feel badly.” Now let us explain the fact. We may have to widen our generalization to let this fact in; but being a fact, we cannot leave it out of view in any theory we may form. We may be sure that we have overlooked something in our analysis of the phrase, “I feel badly.”

Dod argues that feel badly is necessary because feel bad can’t mean what we want it to mean. I disagree with him there, at least in current American English, but the truth is that many people — even the educated — do use feel badly where feel bad would seem to be prescribed. This is a fact that cries out for an explanation, and merely claiming that its users don’t know their English isn’t a very good one.

Let me offer a proposal. As with “I’m feeling crazily”, feel is very strongly biased against adverbial modification in this usage, where one is reporting one’s own feelings. For instance, if I hear someone say “I feel badly”, it’s so unlikely to me that they’re complaining about the incompetence of their exteroception that I find it difficult to get that interpretation of the sentence. Pretty much the only interpretation that comes to mind is “I feel bad”, unless the context suggests that the incompetent exteroception meaning is likely. So even if you hear “I feel badly”, it’s hard to misinterpret it.

As a result, I feel badly exists in a sort of weird situation, where there is very little to suggest that it is erroneous, and a decent amount to suggest it is correct. The meaning is biased against misintrepretation, the verb can take either an adjective or adverb in different situations, bad is ambiguous (or so Dod says), and there’s a general bias to err on the side of adverbs over adjectives. Add those up, and it’s easy to expect I feel badly to be an especially persistent non-standard usage. That said, if you want to follow Educated American English, I feel bad is the better form.

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 non-native 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’ve put together a second post discussing I’m feeling good and I’m feeling bad, and hope to finish off with one on I’m doing good in the future.

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.

The S-Series, looking at words that may or may not have an s at the end, has been on something of a hiatus since February’s look at anyway(s). Today, let’s move the series forward by looking at backward and backwards. As with anyways, the OED reports that backwards is the adverbial genitive form of its “base” form backward, which is sort of a useless fact for me to point out without going into a bit of detail on what an adverbial genitive is.

The genitive is a grammatical case in English better known as the possessive case. If you were to write, for instance, “the child’s toy”, child is in the genitive/possessive case, and this is marked by the presence of the apostrophe-s at the end. Both in English and in other languages, the genitive case is bit broader than mere possession, which is why I call it by this more obscure name.* One of the additional purposes of the genitive in English — well, moreso in Old/Middle English — is to convert nouns and adjectives to adverbs.

In Old and Middle English, this was a productive system, and that created a variety of common Modern English adverbs, such as once (from one), whence (from when), or sideways (from side and way). As English has become less of a case-marking language, the productivity of this system has mostly been lost. The only remaining productive form of it that I’m aware of (and honestly, I wouldn’t have thought of this if it hadn’t been discussed in the Wikipedia article) is for habitual events recurring at specified times:

(1a) I work evenings. My husband works days.
(1b) Fridays I go painting in the Louvre. [Warning: the link plays a Queen song]
(1c) Alternating Thursday evenings, Zachariah watches “Community”.

Backwards is similarly an adverbial form of backward, but the slightly surprising thing about that is that backward didn’t really seem to need it. The OED first attests backward as an adverb in 1330, almost two hundred years before the first attestation of backwards in 1513. Why, then, did backwards appear?**

Well, the key thing to remember here is that a language isn’t some top-down system that only creates words that there is a “logical” need for. My guess is that backwards may have appeared due to an increase in the use of non-adjectival backward that led some users to create a more clearly adverbial form based on the productive adverbial genitive rule, but looking that far back, it’s very hard to say.

Anyway, taking what we have for the back story for backward(s), what’s their current status? Mark Liberman had a well-researched profile of these words on Language Log a few months ago, and his two main conclusions were that:

  • American English uses a higher proportion of backward than British English
  • Both AmEng and BrEng use higher proportions of backwards in conversation than in formal writing

There’s one remaining point on usage, which Liberman doesn’t go into, and which I fear I can’t go much into at the moment either. Backward is both an adverb and an adjective, but backwards is arose as an adverbial genitive. So can backwards be used as an adjective too? Is (2), for instance, acceptable with the s?

(2) Jackson trained himself to say words in reverse order. His backward(s) mumbling disturbed his friends.

The OED says that this adjectival usage is obsolete, but I’m not so sure. I’ve found a couple of examples of adjectival backwards in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), such as (3). I don’t have the resources to get numbers on this, but they seem relatively rare compared to both adverbial backwards and adjectival backward.***

(3) […] your prose is a tad flat, somewhat backwards, too working class.

I don’t know how I feel about (3). I think I would accept it in speech but change it in writing, which makes some sense, since (3) comes from a play. So it seems to me that there is a preference for backward in adjectival usages, but I don’t have good data to support this. This post is running long anyway, so let me leave it there and defer to you readers. Any thoughts on backward(s) are welcome, especially on adjectival backwards.

Summary: Backwards arose as the adverbial genitive of backward 500 years ago. In contemporary English, backward appears to be more formal than backwards, and backward is used more in American English than British English.

"Stressed is desserts spelled backwards!"

An example where I find "backwards" superior, conveniently located just outside my office.


*: Wikipedia has a nice article discussing the span of the genitive in English and other languages if you’re interested in the full details.

**: Let me state the caveat right now that it could just be that backwards does indeed predate adverbial backward but that data sparsity makes them seem to have been temporally swapped. But that would be unexciting.

***: I know what you’re thinking: but Gabe, everyone knows that COHA and COCA have part-of-speech tags on their words, so you could just search for backwards.[j*] to get all the adjectival backwards, and compare that count to backwards.[r*] for adverbial backwards and settle the matter immediately. The trouble is that COHA/COCA were (I think) machine-tagged, and so there is not a single case of tagged-adjectival backwards even though there are clearly adjectival backwards like in (3).

The S-Series so far:
S-Series I: Anyway(s) [02/03/11]
S-Series II: Backward(s) [06/14/11]
S-Series III: Toward(s) [08/29/11]
S-Series IV: Beside(s) [12/07/11]

Stan Carey recently made one of those posts he does every once in a while that makes the rest of us grammar bloggers look like sputtering nimrods. I’m assuming that a substantial number of our readers overlap, but in case you haven’t seen his post, or haven’t gotten around to reading it yet (as I hadn’t for a while), let me strongly suggest that you go check it out.

The post is about non-literal literally, one of the most commonly cited signs of the linguistic apocalypse predicted by the grammar devotionals. But, as Stan shows, it’s far more complicated and interesting than that. Non-literal literally isn’t new (Ben Zimmer found it in the 1760s), and it isn’t restricted to the uneducated (Stan offers examples from Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Charlotte Bronte, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others).

I’m going to quote out a few especially interesting parts of Stan’s post, but again, you really ought to read the whole thing. First, on the motivation for using non-literal literally:

Part of the problem, I think, is that people keenly want to stress the uniqueness, legitimacy, and intensity of their experiences. Guilty of little but enthusiasm and rhetorical casualness – not evil, or stupidity, necessarily – they resort to bombast and hyperbole.

On the fact that this path is hardly unique to literally:

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the contradictory use of literally “does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself . . . but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive”. As such, it is following a familiar path taken by words like absolutely, totallyreally, and even very, which originally meant something like true, real, or genuine.

Here’s his take-home message:

Like it or not, literally is used to mean more than just “literally”, and it has been for a very long time. Some people – I’m one of them – prefer to use it only in its narrower, more literal senses. A subset – I’m not one of these – insist on it.

I’m with Stan. Honestly — and this may shock some of you who’ve been operating under the misapprehension that just because I don’t like prescriptivism that I am unable to distinguish better usage from worse — I don’t care for non-literal literally. I can’t find any examples of me using it in writing, and if I use it in speech, I believe I do so sparingly. My primary objection is that it strikes me as a poor word for the task; if you regularly can’t find a better way to intensify a statement than cheap hyperbole, you’re not a very effective writer. To get on a soapbox a moment, I find the overuse of hyperbole to be one of the most annoying stylistic shortcomings of contemporary writing, especially in Internet communication. This is a personal peeve about writing, so I don’t expect everyone to fall in line behind me on it, but it explains my personal dislike of non-literal literally.

The objection that non-literal literally conflicts with the primary meaning of the word is of secondary concern to me. This conflict is generally minor. It’s rare that one is honestly unsure whether or not the user literally did something, especially in speech, where intonation can clearly indicate the use of exaggeration. Furthermore, as commenter “Flesh-eating Dragon” puts it, “there are degrees of literality; it is not binary.” That makes it hard to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable usages of literally; should we, for instance, ban literally when it doesn’t adhere to its literal meaning of “to the letter”?

Non-literal literally isn’t “wrong” — it’s not even non-standard. But it’s overused and overdone. I would advise (but not require) people to avoid non-literal usages of literally, because it’s just not an especially good usage. Too often literally is sound and fury that signifies nothing.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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