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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.

Saturday morning in our apartment was marked, as all of them ought to be, by Saturday morning cartoons. It may be more accurate to say “cartoon”, singular — only one cartoon was shown, on repeat, because my roommate’s visiting friends had fallen asleep watching it the night before. It was “The Old Man and the Lisa“, the episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns loses all his money and is forced to make a living by recycling. Sent to a retirement home, Mr. Burns looks for something to do, such a newspaper to read, only to be met with Grampa Simpson’s explanation of why none are available: “We’re not allowed to read newspapers. They angry up the blood.”

The same restriction ought to be placed on me as well, except I shouldn’t be allowed to read grammar blogs. For you see, as I was busy working on my big yearly paper, I needed to read something to clear my head from all the Dirichlet distributions dancing in my head. Having already hit all of the sites I normally hit for distracting stories and finding nothing new, I foolishly sought out what other grammar bloggers had to say for themselves. Three minutes later, my blood had been so angried that I actually left a corrective comment on one blog — something that I virtually never do. I felt soothed and returned to my paper with a renewed vigor.

The next day I noticed that there was no comment on that post. Odd, I thought, but then again, I’d been up late writing the night before. It was entirely possible that I’d thought better of posting the comment. So I tried another comment, shorter and less confrontational. It too disappeared.  And so I have to go to all the bother of debunking this grammar gremlin here instead of settling it there.

The post in question is just the same junk everyone says on the internet to show their linguistic superiority — complaining that the so-called “educated” amongst us are actually uneducated, blaming the ills of modern language usage on “the drone of mass media”, all that jazz. The whole point of the post is that the rabble is destroying the language by replacing adverbs with adjectives.  The post drips with disdain for those dips whose slovenly usage is slowly leaching our precious adverbs from our precious language.

Look, I don’t have a lot of patience for this garbage. I’m not going to assert that adverbs definitely aren’t disappearing, but let me point out that the first three examples given to support the claim that our language is falling apart are completely specious.  This is the opening paragraph of the post:

My theory—though I cannot call it my own, original theory—is that within the next hundred years or so, all adverbs will cease to exist. I see them slowly disappearing throughout the various levels of education: the un-tenured freshman recalling that her O-Chem professor “talks too fast” (forgetting, for a moment, the equivocation of the verbs talk and speak); the corporate guru pitching his product as “built tough;” all the way up to the double-doctorate responding “I’m good, thanks” when confronted by the everyday salutation “how are you?”

So we have three examples of adverbs being displaced: talks too fast, built tough, and I’m good.  There’s just one problem.  Adverbs aren’t being displaced in any of these.

Let’s start with “talks too fast”. I’m supposing that the author presumes it’s an error because fast is an adjective and not an adverb.  Since fast is modifying the verb talks, an adjective would indeed be inappropriate.  But here’s the thing: fast is both an adjective and an adverb. It’s been an adverb since around 1200, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, the OED notes that the adjectival form of fast came from the adverbial form!  I don’t even know what the intended correction of talks too fast would be supposed to be.  Talks too fastly?  Nope.

Now on to that damnable Ford advertising slogan: “built tough”. Okay, that complaint at least gets the part of speech right; tough is indeed an adjective, and there is no adverbial usage of tough that would be consistent with the intended meaning. But as it turns out, the adjectival form is totally fine there. It’s called a predicative adjective. Compare it to

(1a) I painted the door white.
(1b) The door was painted white.

(2a) The company built the truck tough.
(2b) The truck was built tough.

And note that an adverb doesn’t actually work here.  You can’t say the door was painted whitely, and while I think you could say the truck was built toughly, it doesn’t have the right meaning.  Toughly in that phrase describes the manner by which the truck was built, while tough in (2) is modifying the truck itself.  And since the truck is a noun phrase, it gets modified by an adjective, not an adverb.

I’ll admit that the predicative adjective sounds a little odd — I don’t often use it myself — but it’s been standard English for quite some time. While you may have many objections to the Ford Motor Company, this one just isn’t justified.

The last complaint is saying “I’m good.”  On occasion back at college, I caught some guff for this.  In my family, we just don’t say well. We’re not well, we’re good. There is a substantial difference to me — well implies mere healthiness, while good implies an overall contentedness.  One can be well without being good, and vice versa.  But I digress. What’s more important than a brief overview of my family’s social interactions is that well in this situation isn’t an adverb, either. It’s an adjective.

You have to use an adjective in this sentence because there’s only a linking verb.  You couldn’t say I’m indignantly; you’d say I’m indignant.  The modifier is modifying the subject of the sentence, so it’s got to be an adjective.  When you say I’m well, you’re not using adverbial well, because there wouldn’t be anything for the adverb to modify. You’re using adjectival well, which just means “healthy”.  It’s a separate question whether you think well is a better adjective than good in this sentence, but the choice has to be between adjectives.  Adverbs are strictly ruled out.  Strike three.

Okay, so someone on the internet is wrong.  Why was I so riled up? Honestly, I wouldn’t have cared about this junk if it weren’t for the last paragraph of the post:

I blame the drone of the mass media, producing poorly thought-out mind-tranquilizers without regard for elevating the comprehension of the masses. But then, I generally hate the entertainment industry and am always quick to point out its culpability in the denigration of our society whenever possible. Meanwhile, if at some point you catch me twitching while listening to you, there’s a good chance you’ve forgotten two very important things: first and foremost, you’ve forgotten your third grade grammar lessons; and second, you’ve forgotten that you’re talking to a grammar snob.

See, that’s why people don’t like self-appointed “grammar snobs”. Not only are they often completely wrong, but they’re insufferably condescending about it. If you’re going to go around telling everyone that they’re idiots, you should probably do a little research to make sure they really are.

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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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