When someone asks you how you are, how do you answer?
Do you say you’re good? You feel well? Or maybe you feel badly for your friend who just lost her job?
For the sake of argument, let’s pretend you use one of the above constructions and you don’t just say, “Life sucks.”
The quick explanation of well versus good:
Use an adjective when you’re describing something, including a state of being. That means you can say that you’re good. So for all those people out there who try to correct your grammar when you say “I’m good” – ppfftt!
But good isn’t the only way to go. The word well, so often thought of as an adverb modifying an action (e.g. He runs well), is also an adjective meaning healthy or satisfactory. So it’s perfectly alright to write “I’m well.”
You’re safe with either well or good. Badly, however, is a tricky matter …
The slightly more in-depth explanation:
You may remember from grade school that the word good is an adjective. That means it describes a thing or state of being. Some other examples are slow, jaunty, quiet. You’d use these words with linking verbs like to be or to seem to describe the subject.
Now, if you search even farther back in your mind, you may recall that adverbs are like adjectives, except they don’t modify things – they modify adjectives, other adverbs or actions. You’d use adverbs with action verbs to tell us how something is done. These words usually give away their adverbiness by ending with –ly.
He is jaunty – linking verb with adjective, describing how he is.
He skips jauntily – action verb with adverb, describing how he does something.
So here’s the rub: to feel is both a linking and an action verb. If you feel quiet [adjective], you’re in a silent mood. If you feel quietly [adverb], it means you’re not making a lot of noise as you’re touching stuff.
In the same way, feeling badly technically means that your sense of touch is screwy.
The bottom line:
When you’re describing your state of being, use an adjective. Either good or well is fine. Use whichever comes more naturally to you and seems appropriate in the situation.
If my old college roommate calls up and asks, “Hey, how are you, pal?” I’ll say, “I’m good.” But if the Queen of England calls up and says, “Hey, how are you, pal?” I’ll say “I’m well,” and then wonder who sold my number to Her Majesty.
And when you say you feel badly, you’re technically commenting on how your sense of touch works and you mean you feel bad.
But in reality everyone knows what you’re talking about if you use badly. It’s another instance of descriptive versus prescriptive grammar, and I, for one, say if the communication is clear, go to town with your bad badly-self and know you’re in the right either way.
Knowing the background of all this gives you the freedom to choose. And no matter which words you use, you can now annoy your friends by always having an answer to their grammar “corrections.”