LawProse Lesson #136: Is “good” becoming an adverb? Are we losing “well” as an adverb?

LawProse Lesson #136: Is “good” becoming an adverb? Are we losing “well” as an adverb?

Is good becoming an adverb? Are we losing well as an adverb? A descriptive linguist might well say so. And in the sweep of time—say, two centuries hence—it may well be that these sentences will be considered Standard English: “We played good.” “You did good.”      “I’m doing really good.” “I can’t write very good.” But for the time being, these uses of good typify uneducated, unrefined English. An educated speaker of English would say or write well in each of those circumstances. Strange thing, though: why can you properly say “We played fine” or “We did fine”? That is because fine can be both an adjective {fine play} and an adverb {played fine}. Why isn’t the same true of good? The answer lies not in logic but in linguistic history: Standard English has sanctioned the adverbial fine since the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). But the OED says of good, when modifying a verb, that it is obsolete and rare “except in vulgar or slang phrases” {I’ll fix them—and fix them good}. So it’s nothing but convention that makes the one acceptable in good speech and the other unacceptable. Good‘s fall from adverbial grace occurred in the late 18th century. The question whether to use good or well frequently arises when someone asks “How are you doing?” The best answer—assuming a positive response—is “I’m doing well” (or “I’m fine, thank you”). Saying “I’m good” is common but unrefined. The response “I’m *doing good” is substandard because good is there being used as an adverb. An exception to the rule against using good as an adverb applies with certain set phrases {a good many more} {did it but good}. After a copula, or linking verb, good is (ahem) fine because it functions as a predicate adjective {You look good} {The check seems good}. But in Standard English, good cannot modify other verbs. Hence we say, “That suit fits well and looks good.” Here’s what two modern commentators say:
  • “‘You did good.’ ‘Yeah, I played good tonight. Practice is coming along real good.’ These goods would once have been considered clearly nonstandard, even substandard. They’re typical of dialect.” Garner’s Modern American Usage 397 (3d ed. 2009) (rating adverbial good as stage 2 on the Language-Change Index, meaning that it is used by “a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage”).
  • “[Adverbial good] dropped out of standard use c1800 and now survives mainly in nonstandard use, esp. in AmE.” Robert W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage 337 (1998).
One especially permissive source suggests that the adverbial good is “almost de rigueur in professional sports.” Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage 366 (2002). It goes even further: “A professional basketball coach interviewed on television after a game began by saying that the team played good but in mentioning the contributing factors said that they shot well and they rebounded well. The nuances here are plain to sports fans but are overlooked by usage writers.” Id. at 367. Really? That might sound good, but it doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny. Thanks to David Dollenmayer for suggesting this topic.

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