You know that moment’s hesitation, that flash of panic, when someone asks, “How are you?” and you aren’t sure whether to say, “I’m well,” or “I’m good"?The Story
Once upon a time, long, long, ago, well was good, and good was well, well was doing good, and good was doing well, and the world was fine, and it was good. Then the Grammarians swept in from the East, riding large horses, and everything changed. The Grammarians did bad, and it was bad, and they thought they were doing well at doing good, but they were doing bad, and doing good very badly. Alas.
With the Grammarians came the advent of “linking verbs” and “subject complements,” and darkness fell across the land.
The Briar Patch
We usually place an adjective before the noun it modifies; but sometimes we place it after a noun and join the two with a “linking” verb. Linking verbs suggest a state of being; other verbs denote action. “To be,” “to seem,” and “to become” are the three “pure” linking verbs; they cannot be action verbs; we're just linking a noun with the adjective that modifies it:
He is precious.
She seems happy.
Jorge became ill.
We can also “link” a noun to the subject to show a relationship between the two.
That’s ironic, because Jorge is a doctor.
Those first three adjectives and that noun above are called “subject complements.” But who cares?
Most “linking” verbs can also be “action” verbs. The most prevalent of these hybrid verbs are the ones we use to describe our five senses: see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. If we write, “We smell good,” “smell” links the subject “We” to the adjective “good,” and so the sentence means, “The aroma we exude is pleasant.” If we write, “We smell well,” “well” is an adverb modifying the action verb “smell.” So that sentence means, “Our noses are in good order.” Other linking verbs that can also be action verbs are act, appear, fall, go, grow, keep, look, make, prove, remain, sound, stay, turn.
Whatever follows a “linking” verb, a state of being, should be a noun or an adjective. Bad is an adjective; badly is an adverb. So when we write:
Every time I’m late picking up Toby from soccer practice, I feel _____.
badly might sound right, and the rare commentator says to use it, but I wouldn’t. Whatever goes in that blank should be an adjective, like bad. If we use badly, that means we have used “feel” as an “action” verb, and “I feel badly” means, “Every time I’m late picking up Toby from soccer practice, my sense of touch stops working properly.”
Back to the original question: How do we properly respond to, “How are you?” Good is an adjective (and occasionally a noun); well is an adverb; well can also be an adjective, but only if it refers to health. So, if we respond:
“I am well, thank you.”
it means, “I’ve just about recovered from my bout with ebola, but thanks for asking.” If we don't mean that, we can't—correctly—use well. If we say:
"I am doing well."
that works, because well is an adverb modifying the participle doing. If we reply:
“I am good.”
good is an adjective, modifying I, and am is the linking verb between the two; so it means either, “I’m a nice person,” which we would rarely say in public, or, “My life is okay,” which is what we intend.
Then there’s the response that's grammatically correct, but no one wants to hear: “How much time have you got?”