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At Lynne Murphy’s long-ago tweeted suggestion, I listened to a debate between Grant Barrett, of A Way with Words, and Matthew Engel, of the BBC article from a few months ago that complained about American usages infecting British English. Through the first 15 minutes, both men were being quite reasonable, saying things that barely conflicted with each other and agreeing that there wasn’t much difference in their positions. (Largely because Engel had gone away from the bombastic note of his Americanisms article and now seemed genuinely surprised that Barrett thought Engel believed in what he had written.)

And then the floodgates opened. Barrett had just mentioned that when his show gets emails from peevers complaining about some supposed error, he replies with a suggestion that they look into the error, and think about why they dislike it. (Would that I had such patience in my responses!) Barrett noted that the peevers often follow this advice, learn something about how English works, and report that these once-teeth-gnashing usages have become at worst minor annoyances.

Engel didn’t care for this attempt to educate away such prejudices and went on the attack, presenting a disingenuous series of questions intended to reveal that Engel is both older and more British than Barrett. Therefore Engel concludes: “So you have no experience of how British English is spoken except on a brief stay?” Barrett responds: “I study language for a living … from an academic perspective, I have a very good understanding of the differences between the two dialects.” Engel’s response:

“So someone who’s lived in this country, not just me but everybody else who’s responded and supported [my column], they’re non-experts. They’ve lived through the changing of the language, but they’re non-experts. They know nothing about the way that language has changed, but what they need is you to try to teach them.”

I wouldn’t say that non-linguistically-trained language users know nothing of their language, but otherwise, I think Engel’s getting it! Wait, he’s elaborating further:

“I think that’s the most patronizing piece of nonsense I have ever heard in my life.”

Nope, never mind.

I don’t find the stance that experts know more than other people about stuff to be patronizing, but even if Engel does, that’s too bad because it’s, you know, true.* And it’s a rather odd position for Engel to take, since he’s a journalist, and journalism is kinda all about telling people things they don’t know — and often don’t know they don’t know.

Think about it analogically: I’ve been in a lot of motor vehicles, but that doesn’t make me an expert on their history, nor does it qualify me to figure out why the engine pings when it’s cold. I watch a lot (a lot) of football, but I couldn’t design effective plays. I cook a lot, but I’m not a master chef. I’ve walked through rainstorms, but I’m no meteorologist. Language is the same; everyone uses it, but only some people study it.

I don’t think that you have to be a linguist by training to be knowledgeable about English usage, but you do have to think about English scientifically. You need to check against available data when drawing your conclusions. You need to be aware that one’s own knowledge can be spotty or skewed. If you don’t even do those two things, you’re a crummy expert on English usage.

We, all of us, linguists and speakers alike, are unreliable narrators of our linguistic experience. We imagine our usage to be clearer than it actually is.** We have information that varies from spot-on to way off. We don’t realize what we say. If my own mother said that I speak one way, I’d have to look it up to be sure.***

Engel is right on exactly one point: it’s not that speakers of English know nothing of English. It’s just that they don’t know everything. As you readers know from my (occasional?) mistakes, my personal knowledge of English is limited. I was shocked to find out that some people say no end instead of to no end. I didn’t understand the double modal until a few years ago. I suffer from the recency illusion, from an unavoidable preference for Pittsburgh English, from a belief that my usages are probably standard. That’s why when I put together a post, I try not to say “X is right” or “X is wrong” based on my personal intuitions. I do due diligence, look up others’ research on the subject, delve into the archives, and map current usage. Before I say that I do or do not say something, I try to look through my own writings to see if I do, and if so when. Even then, with all of that going into it, I still know there’s a decent chance that I’ll only have part of the story and you will fill in the rest with comments and emails.

To have Engel saying that he and the other peevers have no need for linguists checking their work? Engel, who offered five Americanisms to start his column with only one of them actually coming from America? I’m sorry if he finds it patronizing for Barrett or anyone else to tell him he’s wrong and he ought to have consulted a linguist, but his indignance doesn’t magically make the linguists wrong and him right.

In fact, nothing of Engel’s position makes sense. He’s proposing that experience, not expertise, is sufficient, but I know a lot of people with bad spelling or grammar who are older than I am. Should I abandon the English I use and convert to theirs? After all, they’ve lived through the changes. And how does Engel know about Americanisms? I know he’s older than me, but I don’t think he’s spent as long in the U.S. as I have. Doesn’t he have to defer to me on Americanisms? Sorry, Engel old bean, but you know how you called hospitalize a “vile” word? It’s actually glorious. I know because I have more experience in American English than you.

*: There’re separate issues in that many so-called experts are not, that some have axes to grind, and that experts are only experts within their field of expertise, but the fact remains that experts are generally experts and non-experts generally are not.

**: The first time you ever read a transcript of your own speech can be an embarrassing, even unbelievable, affair. We do not speak anywhere near as clearly as we write (excepting people who write badly as well). See, for a not-too-bad example, this snippet of a telephone conversation.

***: Murray, Frazer, and Simon, writing on the usage of “needs done” in the Midwest, had one student tell them that he’d never used the construction in his life and that it was inappropriate for formal writing. Sure enough, he had written it in a paper he had submitted to them.

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.

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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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