Are you good, or are you well? What's the difference?

Have you heard the joke about the three holes in the ground?

Well, well, well.

Unfortunately, the same joke doesn't work if the punchline is "Good, good, good."

The words "well" and "good" both have such diverse meanings that it's easy to get them confused. The meanings do overlap, but only to a certain extent. Misunderstanding this overlap is common among non-native English speakers. Usually, the mistake occurs during casual greetings.

Consider the following (totally normal and acceptable) conversation:

Scenario 1a
A: Hi. How are you?
B: Good, thanks. How are you?

Here, Person B is using "good" in its most simple, traditional way: as an adjective. If we were to set aside questions of formality, and our goal were simply to rewrite the exchange above as meticulously as possible, we might end up with:

Scenario 1b
A: In what state of being are you, at this moment?
B: I am in a good state.

But notice how much the grammar shifts when we observe this next exchange, which is also perfectly normal and common:
Scenario 2a
A: How are you doing?
B: I'm doing well.

The question now contains the verb "to do." The focus is not on Person B's essence, but on his actions, or at least, on his ongoing state. So an expanded version would look like this:

Scenario 2b
A: What is the manner of your ongoing action?
B: The manner of my action is positive.

Or, put a bit more digestibly:

Scenario 2c
A: How are you doing things?
B: I am doing things well.

The question How are you? (Scenario 1) asks for an adjective in response, e.g. good.
The question How are you doing? (Scenario 2) asks for an adverb in response, e.g. well.

Unfortunately, this situation is about to get considerably more complicated.

Scenario 3a
A: How are you doing?
B: Good, thanks. How are you?

This exchange is perfectly normal in colloquial English, even among very educated people who speak with perfect grammar the majority of the time.

Technically, however, Person B is using an adjective to answer a question that asks for an adverb.

But this is acceptable, because:
1) There's a great deal of cultural precedent for it.
2) The person asking the question is really only looking for a positive response, and it doesn't matter much whether that positivity comes in the form of an adjective or an adverb.
3) The ambiguous use of "how" blurs the lines about what sort of response is expected to begin with.

Let's consider reason 3. What does how actually mean?

How is an adverb. Consider how adverbs work. They qualify actions, not things.

So the original question in Scenario 1, How are you? is somewhat problematic in itself. Taken very literally, this question might be understood to mean How is it possible that you exist?

But since How are you is one of the most common phrases in English, we know what it means. And since How is already well installed in the phrase, it doesn't really matter whether the second verb, doing, is added or not.

In other words, How are you is an idiomatic language chunk, which has its own function. The fact that how is an adverb, and that are is a copula (a special connecting word that doesn't exist in some other languages), is beside the point. It also doesn't really matter whether or not there is a second verb in the question, like doing or going. The person asking the question is looking for a succinct, qualitative answer, and that answer can come in the form of either an adjective or an adverb.

Now let's consider a different variation:

Scenario 3a
A: How are you?
B: I am well.

To most modern English speakers, this exchange reads as a bit awkward and stilted. Person B is speaking with unnecessary formality. And by not using the contraction I'm, he comes across as a little pretentious. It sounds as if he likes to hear himself talk. But it's grammatically acceptable.

Some people who talk this way imagine that they are making a statement about grammar through the form of their answer. The word well, being an adverb, directly and properly responds to the adverb how.

But since, as we discussed above, how doesn't really function as an individual adverb here, that distinction is a bit ridiculous. An expanded version of the exchange would be something like this:

Scenario 3b
A: How is your existence progressing?
B: My existence is progressing well.

But there is another way to look at the same exchange. Well can also function as an adjective that means healthy. Viewed this way, and considering the ambiguity of the word how, the exchange is:

Scenario 3c
A: What is your condition?
B: I am in a healthy condition.

So, perhaps Person B isn't being as clever as he thinks.

Now, considering everything discussed above, you might think that the following exchange also makes sense:

Scenario 4a
A: What's up?
B: Fine.

Actually, though, you'd be wrong. Person B sounds ridiculous here. But that's a story for another day.

Thanks for reading, and please be well.

Other Verbling articles by this teacher:

Writing In Another Language: The Ultimate Challenge

Reading Difficult Texts Aloud: Fluency For Advanced Students
"Stand" vs. "Stand Up": What's The Difference?

October 25, 2018
Mi vida antes del Covid- 19 (IMPERFECTO) A-2
Profile Picture
Alejandra Santiago
August 7, 2020
Profile Picture
Abby H
August 7, 2020
The Origins of popular English Idioms
Profile Picture
Jen Mc Monagle
August 7, 2020