Monday, September 8th, 2008

MM: How Do You Feel About a Can of Worms?


Here’s the grammatical equivalent of a trick question:

“How are you?”

The instinctive answer–here in the U.S., at least–is to say, “I’m good.”

Except, of course, that “good” is an adjective, not an adverb, and this inspires lots of debate.

Because when you say “I am good,” the word “good” is an adjective modifying the word “I” so that you’re more or less saying that you are good as opposed to naughty, rather, like Eliza Doolittle affirming, “I’m a good girl, I am.” This can be correct, just like you can say, “I am tall,” or “I am late.”

The problem arises because scores of English teachers insist that what you should be saying is “I am well,” because you are describing how you ARE, so that an adverb is the correct semantic choice, not an adjective, which puts “good” out of the running.

But, really, how can you say for sure, when somebody tells you “I’m good,” that they are defining their actual state (in which case an adjective would work), or their sense of well-being?

And then, if you look “Good” up in the dictionary, there are a whole slew of meanings for it as an adjective, and as noun … but there’s also an informal definition as an adverb, meaning “well.” This more or less implies that, at least when speaking, it is now acceptible to say, “I’m good!”

Or, is it?

What do you think? Can of worms?

4 Comments on “MM: How Do You Feel About a Can of Worms?”

  1. One way around it might be to say, “I am, well, good.” :) “I’m good” doesn’t make sense, never will make sense, but I don’t see it going away. Just one of those quirky expressions we’re stuck with.

    Brad Shorr’s last blog post..Are You Transparent or Translucent?

  2. Martin

    Grammar Girl is of the same opininion.

  3. Oh dear. This so soon after can vs. may? Maybe we should look into the word “how” and examine the way it’s being used here. Maybe instead we should say “What are you?” Heheh.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Slam Poetry Links and Resources

  4. [...] Rules gets you thinking every Monday about grammar and correct word use.  This week she opens up a can of worms with the vexed question of how to answer ‘how are you?‘ (Your answer might depend on which side of the Atlantic you find [...]