How Are You—Good, Well, or Fine?

Posted on Wednesday, September 20, 2017, at 1:51 pm

We at GrammarBook strive to cover both current and established topics of relevance to you, our dedicated band of careful writers and grammarians.

Periodically we still receive inquiries about when we should use the adjectives good, well, and fine. We, perhaps as you do, also still hear and read these words used incorrectly.

We addressed the subject of Good vs. Well in 2007. We thought now would be a good time to review the state of these words, especially now that fine has joined the group.

We’ll first address what each word is made to convey.

Good is an adjective meaning “pious or virtuous” (a good person); “satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree” (a good baseball player); “excellent, proper, or fit” (a good professional background for the job); “well-behaved” (a good child in regard to manners); “kind or beneficent” (a good thing to do); and “worthy or honorable” (of good standing in the community).

Well is most often regarded as an adverb modifying an action. Meanings can include “in a good or satisfactory manner” (He does his job well); “thoroughly or carefully” (We listened to her well); “in a moral or proper manner” (She conducts herself well); “commendably or excellently” (I’d refer to your job as one well done); “with justice or reason” (I couldn’t well turn away the child in need); “adequately and sufficiently” (Prepare well before your exam); and “to a considerable extent or degree” (They spent well over the budget).

However, well can also serve as an adjective: “in good health; sound in body and mind” (He is a well man because of his exercise); “pleasing or good” (All is well with her); “fitting or gratifying” (I think it’s all the more well he didn’t join the debate); “in a satisfactory position; well-off” (He is well as he is). 

Fine likewise can function as either an adverb or an adjective.

As an adjective, it can mean “of high or superior quality” (a fine wine); “excellent or admirable” (a fine song); “consisting of minute particles” (fine grains of sand); “very thin or slender” (fine hair); “keen or sharp, as a tool” (a fine knife for carving); and “delicate in texture” (fine bed and bath linens).

As an adverb, fine can mean “in an excellent manner” (She performed fine on the test) and “very small” (He writes so fine I need glasses to read his letters).

Note that current usage and dictionaries allow fine to serve as finely; as adverbs, they are synonymous and interchangeable (He writes so fine/finely I need glasses to read his letters).

That’s a lot of ways we can go with three short, simple words. So which is (or are) correct in answering a basic question such as “How are you?”

This inquiry typically aims at our sense of physical or emotional well-being (i.e., our general condition). We’ll address it according to our definitions in context.

If we say “I am good,” we are conveying we are virtuous, satisfactory, proper, kind, worthy, or well behaved.

If we respond “I am well,” we are often saying we are in good health, of sound body and mind, or well-off in general. If we slightly adjust our response to “I am doing well,” we can also mean we are conducting ourselves in a good or proper manner; thoroughly, carefully, adequately, or commendably; or with justice or reason.

How about if we say “I am fine”? The dictionary dictates we’re communicating we are excellent, admirable, or of high quality if answering in adjective form. If responding adverbially, we’re saying we are existing in an excellent manner.

Interpreting the original question as applying to our general condition, we can deduce that “I am well” and “I am fine” would be suitable, accurate answers by their definitions.

The same would apply if the question were cast as “How are you doing?” If we respond “I am doing good,” in spoken language, many people will understand what we mean. However, technically, we also could be implying we’re doing something beneficial. This is where writing allows us to be even more precise by using “I am fine” or “I am well.”

The debate will carry on in common usage and stylebooks. The AP Stylebook, for example, advises that good should not be used as an adverb except in a sentence such as “I am [or feel] good,” in which case we can be saying we are in good health. It also explains that using the adverb well in “I feel well” could mean either “I feel in good health” or “My sense of touch is good,” in essence suggesting feel can muddy meaning. 

Goodwell, and fine will remain interchanging parts in language—especially spoken—including as answers to “How are you?” For the careful writer and astute grammarian, however, we champion using the words as the dictionary designs them to be.

 

Pop Quiz

Based on our current discussion, choose the word that best suits the context. Note that each statement can have more than one correct answer.

1) She is a (good / well / fine) person.

2) Jack does his job (good / well / fine).

3) That is a (good / well / fine) make of car.

4) They say that exercise and a good diet can make a person (good / well / fine).

5) The citizens think (good / well / fine) of the village board’s trustees.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1) She is a (good / well / fine) person.
Any one of the adjectival descriptors can serve the sentence depending on the communicator’s intent. “She” could be pious, virtuous, kind, or beneficent (good); sound in body and mind or well-off/in a satisfactory position (well); or excellent, admirable, or of high or superior quality (fine).

2) Jack does his job (well).
Jack does his job thoroughly, carefully, commendably, excellently, or in a good or satisfactory manner; we would therefore use well as an adverb describing how he performs at work.

3) That is a (good / fine) make of car.
The make of car is satisfactory in quality (good) or excellent, admirable, of high or superiority quality (fine); either adjective will suffice.

4) They say that exercise and a good diet can make a person (well).
Here we want to say exercise and a good diet lead to a person becoming in good health or of sound body and mind; we would then use well as an adjective.

5) The citizens think (well) of the village board’s trustees.
We’re aiming to convey how the citizens think of the board and so need an adverb. The citizens think commendably or excellently of it, making well the word of choice.

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