Have you ever been chided for answering the question "How are you?" with "I'm good"? If so, here's some vindication.
Why Saying "I'm Good" Is OK
Now you understand the difference between linking verbs and action verbs. That might seem like a detour on the way to learning why it is OK to say, "I'm good," but it's important because the thing people seem to forget is that it's standard to use adjectives—such as "good"—after linking verbs. (5, 6) When you do it, they are called predicate adjectives, and they refer to the noun before the linking verb. That's why, even though "good" is primarily an adjective, it is OK to say, "I am good": am is a linking verb, and you can use adjectives after linking verbs.
Aside from the linking-verb-action-verb trickiness, another reason people get confused about this topic is that "well" can be both an adverb and a predicate adjective. As I said earlier, in the sentence "He swam well," "well" is an adverb that describes how he swam. But when you say, “I am well,” you're using "well" as a predicate adjective. That's fine, but most sources say "well" is reserved to mean “healthy” when it's used in this way. (1, 3, 4) So if you are recovering from a long illness and someone is inquiring about your health, it's appropriate to say, “I am well,” but if you're just describing yourself on a generally good day and nobody's asking specifically about your health, a more appropriate response is, “I am good.”
Finally, it's very important to remember that it's wrong to use "good" as an adverb after an action verb. For example, it's wrong to say, “He swam good.” Cringe! The proper sentence is "He swam well," because "swam" is an action verb and it needs an adverb to describe it. Remember, you can only use adjectives such as "good" and "bad" after linking verbs, you can't use them after action verbs.
In another episode I'll discuss the difference between bad and badly.
This article originally appeared April 20, 2007.
Download the Chapter on "Dirty Words" From Grammar Girl's Book
Good" versus "well" is just one of the many confusing word choices that Mignon Fogarty covers in the "Dirty Words" chapter of her book, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. You can download the chapter by clicking here.
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- Morris, M. and Morris, W. Harper Dictionary of Contemporary English Usage. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1995, p. 359.
- Lynch, J. "Linking Verbs." The Lynch Guide to Grammar. andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/l.html(accessed April 20, 2007)
- Anson, C. M., Schwegler, R. A., and Muth, M. F. The Longman Pocket Writer's Companion, second edition. New York: Pearson Education, 2006, p. 157.
- Brockenbrough, M. "Martha Talks Back." Encarta, http://urltea.com/1eem (accessed April 20, 2007)
- Thurman, S., The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need. Avon: Adams Media, 2003, p. 41.
- Scharton, M. and Neuleib, J. Things Your Grammar Never Told You. Second edition. New York: Pearson Education, 2001, p. 37.
- Nelson, S. "10 Useful Hints for Everyday Grammar." The Stranger, September 26, 2002. www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=12084 (accessed April 20, 2007)
- The Guide to Grammar and Writing "Some Adjectival Problem Children." Hartford: Capital Community College Foundation, grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/adjectives.htm#good (accessed April 20, 2007)
- Curzan, A. "I am Good?" College of Literature, Science, and the Arts website, University of Michigan. http://www.lsa.umich.edu/lsa/archives/ci.iamgood_ci.detail (accessed October 24, 2012)
- "good." Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. 1994. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated: Springfield, Mass. p.480.
- Wilson, K.G. "good." Columbia Guide to Standard American English. 1993. Columbia University Press: New York. pp. 213-214.
- "good, well." AP Stylebook, online edition. http://www.apstylebook.com/online/?do=entry&id=1296&src=AE (accessed March 21, 2013).