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Doing Well or Doing Good: Can Both Be Correct?

The words “good” and “well” have similar meanings, and many frequently confuse them in casual conversation. A case in point would be the related phrases “doing good” and “doing well.” So what is the difference between doing well and doing good?

Both “doing good” and “doing well” are correct in the proper context. “Doing good” is correct when referring to “good deeds” but not when referring to your state of being. In that case, only “doing well” would be correct. We typically use “well” as an adverb and “good” as an adjective or noun.

If you want to use “well” and “good” correctly, please read on as we outline their proper usage, as well as the interesting exceptions to the rules.

Doing Good vs. Doing Well

Using “well” and “good” correctly as an adverb and adjective respectively is, to a certain extent, easy if you grasp the basics.

Before we look at all the different uses of “good” and “well,” let’s start with the basic question: when are you “doing good” and when are you “doing well?”  

Doing Well or Good as a State of Being

The area where many tend to have difficulty is when deciding whether to use “well” or “good” to refer to their state of being.

When we describe how we feel or how we’re doing, the only correct answer is “I’m doing well” because “doing” is a verb, and only adverbs can describe verbs. 

But, interestingly, if somebody asks you without using the verb “doing” how you are, your answer can either be “I’m good” or “I’m well.” The answer “I’m well” indicates that you are healthy and feeling well.

“I’m good” is also correct due to certain rules governing the verb “to be,” of which “am” is a form.

The verb “am,” as a linking verb, connects the second part of the sentence (“good”) back to the subject “I” in the first part of the sentence. In that case, the adjective “good” describes the subject “I.”

We would not use an adverb here. For example, we say “I’m sleepy” and not “I’m sleepily.” It works because “good” modifies the subject “I” and not the verb “am.” Therefore, “I’m good” is a proper response as long as you don’t use the verb “doing” (source). 

“I’m well” also works because “well” can also function as an adjective, whereas “good” never functions as an adverb.

In summary, when the sentence involves health or your state of being, you use the word “well” and not “good.” You could say, “I’m well after having the Corona-virus for six weeks.”

In this sentence, you use “well” as an adjective, describing your health condition.

Doing Some Good

When you are referring to doing “good deeds,” like building houses for the homeless, it is correct to say that you’re “doing good.”

When we say “good deeds,” we’re still using “good” as an adjective. When we state that we’re “doing good,” where “good” represents a good thing, we’re using “good” as a noun.

As another example, if your business is having a hard time coping with the Covid-19 restrictions and you’ve hired an expert to change the business to a virtual set-up, you hope the changes will do your business some good.

Here, “good” refers to the actual benefit of the changes you are making or the end-product.

On the other hand, if someone asks you how the previously mentioned construction project is coming along, you will answer that it is doing well, going well, or coming along well — “well” describes the building-action. 

Should another person ask how the business change is going, the answer would be that it is going well — “well” describes the process of change.

Basic Definitions and Rules

Before we look at any exceptions, we’ll first examine the basic definitions and rules for the two words. When you study their origins, you’ll find that, in principle, English has long used them to describe desirable quality.

Good

Good has the same roots as the Dutch word “goed,” the Old High German word “guot,” and the German “gut,” which all translate as fit, adequate, and belonging together (source). 

The Bible also uses “good,” and it is the most common English translation for the Hebrew word “tobh” in the Old Testament, meaning to possess desirable qualities (source). 

Good’s most common function in English is as an adjective that we use to describe or modify a noun. The word comes from Old English god, meaning considerable, desirable, and valuable, and full. Originally, it probably meant having a right or desirable quality.

When you tell someone that you’ve had a good time this morning, the word “good” describes the quality of the noun “time.”

While the adjective is before the noun it describes in the previous example, you can also use an adjective after the noun, as in “the dinner (noun) we had yesterday was good” (source).

A third position for the adjective is after a linking verb, like our previous example using “I’m good.” For instance, it is correct to say, “The photos look good.” In this case, “good” gives more information regarding the noun “photos.” 

Further examples where we use ‘good’ as an adjective include the following:

  • It was a good breakfast.
  • John comes from a good family.
  • We have good friends.
  • I need a good deal.
  • This boat is as good as new.

Well

We can use “well” as an adverb or adjective, and in Old English, the Anglo-Saxons used the adjective form in the sense of “in good fortune” or “happy,” more like we use “wealthy” today. 

The word relates to the Old Saxon “wela,” old Norse “vel,” and Dutch “wel,” meaning “abundantly.” The Bible also uses “well” to translate the Hebrew “shalom” as in “well-being,” “well,” and “in good health” (source). 

The Old Testament frequently uses it to describe verbs like “create” and “care” and, thus, has an adverbial function. It refers to the way God cares about the well-being of people and how people should care for each other (source).

From the 1550s, English has used the word “well” when meaning someone is in good health and not ailing.

As an adverb, “well” modifies verbs. Adverbs typically express manner, place, degree, level of certainty, etc. They answer questions, such as when, how, where, and to what extent?

It is correct to say that someone has done well on a test. In that case, “well” describes how they did on the test – it describes the verb “has done.” 

Similarly, to describe your skill level when playing tennis, you would use an adverb to tell more about the verb “play.” Therefore, you would say, “I play tennis well.”

A few more examples where you generally will not use “good” but only “well” are as follows:

  • He behaved himself well.
  • She married well.
  • The plan worked well.
  • He speaks Spanish well.
  • With all that money, he lives well.

Shared Synonyms

Although their functions as parts of speech often differ, these two words share many common synonyms, like excellent, acceptable, satisfying, and great (source). 

You can use any of these words to describe desirable qualities, indicating the quality of either the outcome itself or the process to reach that outcome.

As an example, you can use “excellent” in the place of “good” or “well” as adjectives, or you can use “excellently” in the place of  “well” as an adverb. Consider the following sentences:

  • The assignment they handed in was very good.
  • The assignment they handed in was excellent.
  • They performed their task very well
  • They performed their task excellently.

How and When to Use Well or Good

Context is important when deciding when and how to use these two words, and there is some overlap when we use them as adjectives. In general, “well” has more flexibility than “good.”

While we can use either “good” or “well’ to describe the quality of a thing or an action, we can also use “well” in very distinct ways.

Describing Items or Actions of Quality

When you describe something someone has done to a high standard, you say they did “well.”

In the sentence “Your essay on this problem presents the pros and cons very well,”  the adverb “well” describes the writing process of the essay, modifying the verb “presents.”

To describe the standard the essay itself met, you can use the adjective “good.” In this manner, you’re describing the end product and tell the essay writer that his essay, with all the pros and cons, is very good.

Returning to a previous example, if someone has achieved a high degree of skill in tennis, you can tell him that he plays (verb) tennis well enough to earn consideration for the club team.

Another way to put this is to tell him that his tennis skills (noun) are good and, therefore, worthy of consideration for the club team. 

Whether you phrase the sentence to describe an action or a thing, both sentences convey the message that he has reached a high degree of skill.

Good as AdjectiveWell as AdjectiveWell as Adverb 
Although she’s young, she is a good singer.She is a well-beloved singer.Although she’s young, she sings well.
John and Susan are good students.Since they have read the well-known book on study methods, they are getting better results.John and Susan study well.
The counselor is a good listener.Our well-respected counselor is a good leader.The counselor listens well.
He did a good job.It was a well-executed job.He did the job well.
We have good neighbors.My neighbor’s well-behaved dog never barks during the night.We don’t know our neighbors well.

Comparative and Superlative Forms

Both “good” and “well” change to the same comparative and superlative forms, namely, “better” and “best.” Both best and better can function as adjectives or adverbs.

It is therefore correct to say that we will publish the better book, as “better” is the comparative form of good. As “best” is the superlative form of “well,” it is also correct to say, “While all the other players did well, Pete did the best.”

Using Well to Emphasize Prepositions or Adjectives

We can use “well” to emphasize a preposition or adjective, which you generally cannot do with “good” (source). 

For example, you can warn someone to keep “well away from” the turning watermill, where “away from” is the preposition. You can also use the adverb when you inform your child’s teacher that you are “well aware” of your daughter’s homework problems.

Well as an Interjection

You can also use “well” as an interjection to indicate that you are about to say something, like, “Well, go get your swimming wear.” 

You can also use “well” to indicate an abrupt change in topic, a pause, or to refer back to something you discussed earlier. 

For example, you might be in the middle of a conversation, and then you stop to thank someone else for running an errand for you. When you return to your previous conversation, you might say, “Well, where were we?”

We generally only use “well” as an interjection in conversational English as it’s too informal for academic and professional writing (source).

Now that you know when to use “good” and “well,” you most probably have questions about other words and phrases, like whether it is correct to say “thank you both,” which you can read more about here. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

Remember, whenever you are in doubt about the correct use of a word, you can use The Oxford New Essential Dictionary or Dreyer’s English as excellent sources. You can purchase both of them on Amazon.

Final Thoughts

The most important thing to remember is that “well” is usually an adverb describing how something or someone looks, feels, or does things, and “good” is an adjective describing good deeds or a noun representing a benefit — the end result of something.

If you can keep the fundamental difference in mind, you are certainly doing well with your mastery of the English language. If you are an English-language learner, this will even give you an edge over many native speakers.