Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Good vs. Well

My Dear Reader,

In addition to my love of literature, I've found that the language itself can be just as interesting as any author's genius can be. So I've been increasing my knowledge of the language I speak inasmuch as my major will allow, and this means that I know all sorts of ridiculous grammar rules that most people are completely unaware of. One of these rules dictates the use of the words good and well, and once you get to a certain level of education, the rule seems unavoidable (unlike the rule that says you can't use which before an nonrestrictive clause, which completely ignorable). So I thought that I would conduct a little experiment to see what the difference between good and well really is in the real world.

Now, before I explain my results, I'll quickly explain what the big deal is: technically, good is an adjective (which describes things) while well is an adverb (which describes actions or states of being). Thus, some people some time ago decided that when someone asks you how you are, you are to respond that you are well (state of being). To demonstrate:

Person 1: Hi, Person 2. How are you?
Person 2: I'm good, you?


Person 1: Hello, Person 2. How are you?
Person 2: I am very well, thank you. How are you this fine morning?
Person 1: Tea and crumpets?


The argument that these dead people (and their living allies) are trying to make is that good is synonymous with virtuous, meaning that when you call yourself "good" it is really a proclamation of inherent righteousness. To demonstrate:

Person 1: Hi, Person 2. How are you?
Person 2: I am very good today. I didn't lie or cheat, and I saved some orphans from a fire. I'm pretty much the greatest thing ever.
Person 1: Your hubris is showing.

In contrast, the word well means healthy, or more precisely, not sick and/or contagious. And isn't that what people really mean when they ask you how you are? After all, asking someone to profess their worthiness to you in such a casual manner is quite awkward. Of course, this habit comes from a time when people were constantly dying of consumption or the like, and this was more like a "so you're not dying?" sort of inquiry:

Person 1: Hello, Person 2. How are you?
Person 2: I am very well, thank you. I was ill last week with the gangrene, but it seems to have cleared up wonderfully.
Person 1: It is quite pleasant to know that I do not have to fear that you will fall over dead at any moment, possibly taking me with you. Huzzah!

Now the problem with this rule is that it is somewhat outdated and therefore comes off as stuffy and impersonal. Yet, it is still considered wrong by people who think they know grammar, and those people happen to hand out diplomas and Pulitzer prizes. So if you happen to want to be a world-changing writer, you have to be able to hob-knob with these people, right? And therein lies my dilemma: do I speak with perfect grammatical correctness at all times in order to maintain my credibility and risk stuffiness/snobbery, or what? So I decided to try telling everybody I was well in a natural, non-snobbish way for a few months and see what happened. The results were exceedingly telling.

First of all, I found that I actually offended some people, or at least put them on guard. This generally happened with close friends of mine, people who knew me and knew that I'm not from Buckingham. Not only did my grammatically correct response come as a surprise, but they appeared to feel like I was judging their language skills, i.e. being very rude.

Second of all, I found that in more formal settings it was either accepted or not noticed. Since part of my job entails dressing up and acting with a certain decorum, I found that using well was appropriate. Somehow, wearing slacks made it all okay. I also found that certain people I came in contact with in this capacity lowered their opinion of me the moment I used good. So slacks equal well and jeans equal good. Apparently.

Thirdly, I found that I had a very difficult time being consistent for any period of time. After more than four months, I still slip up all the time, and when I do it is not unusual for someone to point it out. It's kind of like putting spats on inside out or something: what could appear dignified now looks excessively foolish.

So I've pretty much determined that we notice language more than we think, that we have a very emotional attachment to language, and that I should try to continue saying well in formal situations or I'm going to be in trouble.

See? That wasn't so bad, was it?

Regards, best wishes, and explanations a lot longer than promised,

-Cecily Jane


Lina said...

Your dialogues killed me, as did the jeans v. slacks thing.

~Stappsters~ said...

I am doing quite well in my blue jeans. Don't lower your standards for the illiterate Cec!

MJH said...

I agree with Stappsters. And what ever happened to "Fine, Thank-you" Still a clever observation jeans vs. slacks. MJH

Cecily Jane said...


Thanks for the compliment!

Stappsters and MJH,

It's incredibly ironic how being grammatically can cause some people offense, but it can. The way I see it, "correct" has turned into "formal", and formal responses in informal settings can cause people to feel out of place and self-conscious. Of course, being polite is always a good way to go.

Molly said...

I'm sending this link to Debbie Harrison. You've been warned.