I’m Good and I’m Doing Good

Mother Theresa

She did good. But was she doing well?

I recently read an online argument about one of the most commonly used, and commonly fought, expressions around: It’s the answer to “how are you?”

“I’m doing good” vs. “I’m doing well.”

[NOTE: I’d also like to defend “I’m good,” but others have done it well, so I’ve pasted a link below.]

But first, a word about usage

Unlike most attacks on pedantry, this one doesn’t rely on usage. That is, usually when defending a new usage (say, using “literally” as an intensifier), the defender says that usage is what counts. If a lot of people (or, a lot of the right kinds of people) use a term or phrase, then it becomes ok to use.

But in this case, I’m going to argue that “I’m doing good” is 100% grammatically correct, and the reason to avoid it is because of usage norms.

Why avoid it if it’s grammatically correct? Because a lot of people will think you’re making a grammatical mistake, even though you’re not.

You avoid it because, for social reasons alone, it’s just not accepted.

When I meet the Queen of England, and she says, “Rise, Sir Robert. How ya doing?” I’ll say, “Very well, thank you.” I will not say, “I’m doing good,” even though I know that English allows it. (I’ll also avoid expressions like, “holy cow,” and “coolio” for the same reason.)

I suggest you follow my lead.

But let’s press on.

“I’m doing good” vs. “I’m doing well”

The setup:

Person A: Hello, how are you doing?

Person B: I’m doing good.

Person A (excited at the possibility of pedantry): You mean to say that you do good deeds? Ha! I say, Ha! Why, I was only asking whether you’re well!

Person B: I believe it would be best if we didn’t speak for a decade or two.

Straight off the top, I’ll state that Person A does not deserve to spend time with humans. Unless you’re truly confused, you’re an instructor, or you enjoy the smell of burnt communication, then it’s best to spend your energy on what the person is saying and not how the person is saying it.

But in this case, Person A is not only insufferable, but also wrong to imply a grammatical misstep.

“I’m doing good” isn’t doing bad

Let’s look at how verbs and adverbs usually work:

“The woman nodded peacefully.”

The word “peacefully” is an adverb, which means that it describes the verb. In other words, “peacefully” describes how the woman nodded, not the woman herself. What was done peacefully? An action. Nodding.

And this idea, that adverbs describe verbs, is what causes some of the problem:

“I’m doing good.”

“Good” is not an adverb. “Good” can be a noun (look at all the good in the world) or an adjective, describing a noun (that was a good show).

But “good” can’t describe a verb like “doing.” For that, we need an adverb, and one adverb we could use is “well.”

Thus speaketh the argument against “I’m doing good.” But there’s a wrinkle. Actually two.

The wrinkles

Wrinkle #1: The English language allows certain verbs to act as “linking verbs.” For example, the verb “was”:

“The show was wonderful.”

The verb “was” is a linking verb. “Wonderful” doesn’t describing the verb “was.” Instead,  it’s an adjective, describing the word “show.” What was wonderful? The show.

There are lots of verbs that can switch from being action verbs to linking verbs.

If you’re a bloodhound, then you smell well. If you’re wearing a bit of perfume (just a bit, mind you), then you smell good.

“Good” is appropriate in the second sentence, because you’re describing something about the person’s smell (a noun), not something about the action of smelling (a verb).

Wrinkle #2: The word “well” can be an adverb or an adjective. This confuses people.

If you scan the horizon carefully, then you look well at the horizon. (Adverb describing something about the action of looking.)

If you have recovered from an illness, then you look well. (Adjective describing you, not the action of looking.)

And finally:

How are you doing? “I’m doing well.”

When someone asks, “how are you doing,” and you answer, “I’m doing well,” you’re using “well” as an adjective, not an adverb. YOU (noun) are doing well (adjective describing the noun).

Both “well” and “good” are adjectives! They’re both legit.


But what about the ambiguity?

This is the next phase in the argument against saying, “I’m doing good.” It goes like this:

If I say, “I’m doing good,” I could truly mean that I’m doing good deeds. How will we distinguish between doing good deeds vs. being in a state of general well-being?

To which, I reply (haughtily):

If I say, “I’m doing well,” I could mean that I’m doing well AT something (or recovering from illness), rather than meaning that I’m in a state of general well-being.

The truth is that “doing good” and “doing well” are equally ambiguous. Which means that, 99% of the time, they’re not ambiguous at all.

To wrap up

The grammar is correct either way.

And so, if you “correct” the “I’m doing good” people, you should know that you have no grammatical footing. You have only usage and what’s considered to be educated. And by that standard, you may soon have to accept a lot of phrases and definitions that you may not like very much.

See also: Motivated Grammar on “I’m Good”

Disagree? Want to hang me by my toes? Or do you think I’m right?


5 Responses to “I’m Good and I’m Doing Good”

  1. November 4, 2011 at 5:08 am #

    The problem is caused by people asking ‘How ya doing?’ The Queen would NEVER say that!

    How do I get a photo attached to my comments? I guess I should subscribe.

    • November 16, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

      I’m not sure whether an image can be added to a comment. HTML tags might work, but I can’t guarantee it.

  2. September 10, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

    I’m afraid your argument here in favour of allowing “I’m doing good” equally along side “I’m doing well”… is not at all clear… maybe I need to read it well a few times more so that I have a good understanding…

    • September 10, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

      Jonathon, to put it more succinctly, in that sentence, “well” is being used as an adjective, not an adverb. “Good” is also an adjective, so it’s just as good a word as well.

  3. September 12, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    OK! I see what your saying. I guess my problem with this is that I’ve always interpreted “doing” as in “I’m doing etc.” to be along the lines of “I’m doing all things well…” rather than “I’m well!” That said, and your point taken, as an Irishman living and working in Spain I think I’ll continue to advise my Spanish speaking (English learning) colleagues to use “I’m doing well” rather than “I’m doing good!” … but perhaps with a new caveat! 🙂 Cheers. Love the column.

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