By The Grammar Guru
Sometimes it seems the English language is so filled with vagaries and technicalities that some cruel grammarian must have come up with the rules just to sit back and laugh at us as we struggle to use them. The words good and well are prime examples. How is a writer to know when to use which word? For example, are all of these sentences correct? Incorrect? A mixture?
Sarah did good on her report.
Jim did well on his physics test.
Karen’s little sister was a good girl today.
Pastor Chris spoke well in convocation.
If you said all of these sentences are correct except the first one, give yourself a lollipop.
As is typically the case in English, there are rules to govern usage of the two words. Good is always an adjective, and well is usually an adverb. If well were always an adverb, some of our problems would be solved.
Perhaps a little brush up on parts of speech is in order. For our purposes here, we need to know that adjectives are words which describe nouns and pronouns. Nouns are naming words. They name persons, places, things or ideas. Examples of nouns are girl, Sallie, apartment, Emmanuel College, Georgia, basketball, homework, honor, and faith. Pronouns simply replace nouns: I, me, she, he, it, they, we, us, etc.
Since good is an adjective, we use it to describe nouns: Karen’s little sister was a good girl today. We ate a good meal at the restaurant last night. Dr. Story is a good photographer.
Adverbs, on the other hand, modify (describe) verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Fortunately for an examination of good and well, we can limit our discussion to verbs. Verbs are action words such as shoot, dance, sing, jump, and laugh. I could say Fred shoots the basketball, but if I want to describe the manner in which he shoots it, I would say Fred shoots the basketball accurately or Fred shoots the basketball well.
Which brings us back to the issue of good and well. Since good is an adjective, it will always describe a noun. So I would drive an English teacher crazy if I were to say Fred shoots the basketball good. In this sentence, I am describing how Fred shoots; I am not describing the basketball. Since shoots is a verb, I need to use an adverb: Fred shoots the basketball well. However, if I change the sentence slightly, I would need an adjective: Fred is a good basketball player. Now I am using a word which describes the noun player; Fred is a good player.
Unfortunately, there is twist in the grammar rule: Not all verbs are action verbs; some are called linking verbs—words like am, is, are, was, and were. In addition, sensory words such as taste, smell, sound, feel, seem, appear, and look may be action or linking verbs, depending upon their use. Following a linking verb, we need to use an adjective. In a sentence such as Jane is beautiful, the adjective beautiful describes the noun Jane. Or if I substitute a sensory verb for is, I would still say Jane looks beautiful.
To answer the question in the headline, would I say She looks good or She looks well? If I am talking about Jane’s appearance, that means I am describing the noun Jane. So I would say Jane looks good (looks is a linking verb in this sentence).
However (and here is the twist) if I am talking about Jane’s health, I would use the word well. Even though well is typically an adverb, when we need a word to describe health, we use the adjective well.
To sum it all up, keep in mind the following: good is always an adjective, and well is an adverb unless it is referring to health. Then well becomes an adjective.
If your head is not spinning yet, you may want to try your hand at picking the correct word for the following sentences. The correct answers are at the end of the article. See how well you can do at making a good score!
1. Trevor and Hazel play tennis (good, well).
2. You did (good, well) on your speech today.
3. That meal Kelly baked was (good, well).
4. Mr. Stark is a (good, well) writer.
5. Pastor Chris has a (good, well) sense of humor.
6. I heard Jim was ill, but now he looks quite (good, well).
7. That (good, well) steak was (good, well) cooked.
8. Did you do (good, well) on that assignment?
Answers: 1. Well (well describes the verb play); 2. Well (well describes the verb did); 3. Good (good describes the noun meal); Good (good describes the noun writer); 5. Good (good describes the noun sense); 6. Well (well here is referring to Jim’s health); 7. Good (good describes the noun steak) and Well (well refers to the verb cooked); 8. Well (well describes the verb did.)
So, how well did you do? Did you do a good job?
To further extend your knowledge, visit the Online Writing Lab at Purdue: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/esl/esladjadv.html.
And have a good day!