Word Choice: Good vs. Well

A Guide to the Ampersand (&)

The words ‘good’ and ‘well’ are both used when something is pleasing or acceptable. But despite this overlap, these words are not usually interchangeable. So what are the differences? And how do you avoid errors in your writing? In this post, we explain how to use these words correctly.

The Basics of ‘Good’ and ‘Well’

Traditionally, ‘good’ is an adjective. This means we use it to modify nouns. ‘Well’, meanwhile, is usually an adverb, so we use it to modify an action word:

I am having a good day!

My day is going well!

Here, for example, we use ‘good’ in the first sentence above to modify the noun ‘day’. In the second sentence, we use ‘well’ to modify the verb ‘going’.

The difference is that ‘good’ describes something as pleasing in itself, while ‘well’ shows that something is happening in a pleasing manner.

This distinction applies in most cases, but there are some seemingly non-standard uses to watch out for. We will look at a few of these uses – including for sense verbs, health, and informal English – below.

Sense Verbs

Knowing which of ‘good’ and ‘well’ to use when discussing the senses can be tricky. The key here is that sense verbs – ‘see’, ‘hear’, ‘taste’, etc. – usually take adjectives, not adverbs. This is because we’re describing a quality of the object being sensed, not the person doing the sensing:

The flower smelled good.

The flower smelled well.

Here, for instance, the smell belongs to the flower, not the person sniffing it, so we use ‘good’ (i.e. we modify the noun ‘flower’). To say the flower ‘smelled well’ would be to say that it was good at smelling things!

Health and Satisfaction

‘Well’ can be used as an adjective to mean ‘satisfactory’ or ‘pleasing’. In these cases, it is often interchangeable with ‘good’. For instance:

All is well in my life today.

All is good in my life today.

The sentences above mean roughly the same thing. However, we can also use this term as an adjective meaning ‘healthy’, such as in:

Bob has not been well lately.

This sentence suggests that Bob is ill or otherwise unhealthy. And when discussing health, this is distinct from ‘good’. Saying ‘Bob has not been good’, for example, would mean he had misbehaved. To say he had been unhealthy, we’d have to specify that he had ‘not been in good health’ instead.

 ‘Good’ in Informal English

You may sometimes hear people say they ‘did good’ at something. This is fine in less formal or spoken English. Technically, though, ‘did’ is a verb, so we would modify it with an adverb in formal writing. For example:

I did well on the test today.

I did good on the test today.

Thus, in formal writing such as an essay, stick to using ‘well’ with verbs.

Summary: Good or Well?

If you are using these terms in formal writing, keep the following in mind:

  • Good is an adjective, so we typically use it to modify nouns.
  • Well is usually an adverb, so we use it to modify verbs.

The main exception to this is when discussing health, where ‘well’ is an adjective meaning healthy. Even in this case, though, you will want to distinguish between ‘being good’ (i.e. behaving) and ‘being well’ (i.e. being healthy). So try not to get these terms confused!

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