or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, March 06, 2006

Well, Well, Well

Everyone gets things wrong from time to time in the language biz; I erred recently when I made an unnecessarily broad generalization about German, and a local language maven blew it when a reader complained about a usage that bothered him. It's worth quoting in full, from Norbert Cunningham's column in the Monday, March 6th edition of the Moncton Times & Transcript:

I recently heard from a reader asking what I think about a usage he has heard several times in the electronic media, a usage makes him cringe but seems to be increasing. It is irritating because it seems so wrong--and surely is wrong. The usage? Speakers referring to "a well-paying job."

Gosh, that one has eluded my ears so far, but it is worthy of the Hall of Shame. The reader wanted to know what I think. The first line of my e-mail reply (and I will assume he got the serious point as well as the joke) was this: "I think you have a well ear for language!"

The wording obviously should be "a good paying job" and the use of "well" is not only jarring but also shows great ignorance and tone deafness for English. It doesn't even sound right. If one has a good paying job, you can say that the person is "well paid"; but "well-paying job" is...well...well beyond the pale. Look it up! You'll learn more that way than if I try to prattle on about submodifiers in combination, intensifiers and the like. And when you do look it up, make sure you learn the lesson good...er...well...eh!

I did look it up, and it's no surprise that there isn't any consensus on the topic. I found several sources that agree with Cunningham, but others that disagreed, as this one does (down towards the bottom of the page).

I don't think we need to be thinking about submodifiers or intensifiers: that's going to lead us down the wrong path, because "good" as in "good-paying job" is not an intensifier--"good" as an intensifier is used in such contexts as "a good deal of work to do" or "a good many people agree". What we need to ask ourselves is, "Is 'well' an adjective or an adverb? And what about 'good'?"

In standard English, "good" is an adjective, of course: we can never say "He bobsledded good in the Olympics", because "bobsledded" is a verb and requires an adverb. "Well" is another thing altogether; although it's obviously the adverbial form of "good", it's also served as an adjective for hundreds and hundreds of years, as in "I imagined it might be well to publish the articles", a direct quotation from Benjamin Franklin's autobiography.

Now, although "pay" is a verb, "paying" is an adjective in this context, modifying "job", in the same way that "speeding" is an adjective in the expression "speeding car". Adjectives take adverbs as modifiers, and since "good" only rarely functions as an adverb (and then only in certain contexts, and then almost only ever in spoken English, not written), we ought to use "well". Even if some think it sounds odd--and, really, it does, a little--to say "a well-paying job", it's grammatically unimpeachable.

However. We do, in fact, replace adverbs with adjectives in such phrases: just look at the expression "free-floating anxiety", which is idiomatic and never rendered as "freely floating anxiety". Or, for that matter, look at "high-paying job"; "high" is the adjective, "highly" the adverb, and you scarcely ever hear or read "highly paying job". We can, and fairly often do, turn adverb-adjective pairs into adjective-adjective pairs that form a single compound adjective: "quick-moving", for example, sounds as right to the ear as "quickly moving". But we can't always do this: a native speaker would be extremely unlikely to say something like "a rapid-swimming shark", which sounds wrong, preferring "a rapidly swimming shark". (I think it would take years of listening to English to get a feel for which form is appropriate and when.)

For what it's worth, "good" and "well" have been contentious in English for pretty nearly as long as there have been grammarians. Some have insisted that you can say "I feel good" but not "I feel well", because that latter necessarily means that your sense of touch is acute; others have rightly said that this is nonsense, that the use of "well" in such a case is idiomatic and correctly understood by everyone. As well, "good" functions as an adverb in such other idiomatic phrases as "but good"--"I fixed him but good!" It's probably grammatically indefensible, but then, so many idioms are.

What this all comes down to is that "well-paying job" is not wrong. If you Google the two phrases, you'll find plenty of examples of both; they're not quite neck-and-neck, with "well-paying" about 15% ahead. If I were editing someone's writing, I'd leave whichever form they chose; they're both acceptable, in my book. Neither one, to say the least, belongs in any Hall of Shame.


Blogger Frank said...

God, you're good (or well? *hehe*), pyramus! Were you ever a lawyer?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006 12:55:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Nah, just a nitpicker. Also a copy-editor, which of course amounts to the same thing, only you get paid for it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006 4:09:00 AM  

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