Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times | Terms of Service | Privacy Policy

A Word, Please: Know when you’ve been well or good

Your younger brother has a new boat. Your dad mumbles something inaudible whenever anyone mentions your haircut. And your mother has begun adding “really, really” to every sentence in which she talks about wanting grandkids.

If you’re feeling this bad about yourself, it must be the holidays. And, if you’re going to feel bad, you might as well brush up on the correct way to say it, along with all the other things you will surely be forced to utter this season. So here, just in time for the holidays, is your grammar and usage social-gathering survival guide.

When people feel guilty, sympathetic or small, they often say “I feel badly.” It’s an attempt to speak grammatically, based on the idea that adverbs modify verbs. Unfortunately, it’s wrong. The grammatical choice is “I feel bad.”

As I’ve written in this space before, that’s because “feel” is a member of a class of verbs called linking or copular verbs, which take adjectives as their complements.

Copular verbs have to do with being or the senses. You are happily. This coffee tastes awfully. She seems nicely. Your hair looks prettily. All these adverbs are wrong because of the nature of the verbs they follow. They’re linking verbs, in these sentences at least, so they all take adjectives. Just as “I feel bad” should.

When you attend holiday gatherings this year, people will probably ask how you’ve been. In a lot of cases, they’re only looking to segue into a conversation about their new boat. But on the off chance someone’s actually listening, here’s what you should know about “well” and “good.”

First, though “good” is considered a less proper response to the question “How are you?” it isn’t wrong. Dictionary definitions of the word “good” include “in good health,” so you can use it this way if you don’t mind misguided people thinking you’ve erred.

Second, “well” is both an adverb and an adjective. As an adjective, it means “in good health,” making it a good choice for answering questions about how you are. But as an adverb, it can modify verbs like “doing” in “How are you doing?” Notice how that’s subtly different from “How are you?” which calls for an adjective.

If someone asks how you’re doing and not just how you are, “well” probably is a better response than “good.”

When you’ve had all the turkey and passive-aggressiveness you can stand, you might mention that you’re done with your meal. This is the perfect opportunity for the family smarty pants to quip, “No, you’re finished. A roast is done.” And, assuming you’ve had enough wine and are ready for a fight, here’s what you do: open a dictionary to the Ds, where you’ll see something like this: “done. 1. having been carried out or accomplished; finished. 2. cooked adequately.”

That’s right, “done” means “finished.” Not only does it mean finished, but this dictionary (American Heritage) actually considers that definition more dominant than “cooked adequately.” And, no, this isn’t a recent erosion of a once-pure usage.

“Done” has meant “finished” for about three centuries. Researchers are baffled as to why anyone has ever argued otherwise. Their best guess is that a book called the “Manual of Good English” published about a hundred years ago — which pushed opinion as fact — was taken too seriously.

Finally, when you’re waiting for a certain judgmental aunt or habitually drunken uncle to arrive, choose your words carefully. If you say you’re “eager” to see him or her, you’re putting a positive spin on your anticipation. If, instead, you say you’re “anxious” to see that particular relative, you’re infusing the idea of dread which, though that’s probably what you mean, may not be wise to say.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at