or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Well, Good For You

Even if you read a lot and think you have a pretty broad knowledge base, you become aware from time to time that there are still millions of things out there about which you have no idea.

BoingBoing, as usual, had a link to something fascinating yesterday: a piece about knife-sharpening. I would never have guessed how detailed it would be or how much you have to know to put a proper edge on a knife, but now I know (and if you read it, you will, too).

The piece contains this sentence, which gave me pause:

If you want your knife too look as good as it performs, progress through the coarse, medium and fine stones at each angle setting while you’re raising your burr.

We have a little problem with parallel structure here. The writer is using one adverb to modify two different verbs, which ought to be fine, except that "good" is generally an adjective, not an adverb: "well" is its adverbial form. We don't say something performs good, because "perform" requires an adverb; we can only say it performs well. (The use of "good" to modify these verbs is heard, but it's a colloquialism that sounds uneducated to many ears: "You sure type good!")

So why can we say "looks good" in English but not "performs good"? We just can, that's all. Due to longstanding usage (really longstanding--this usage is centuries old), "good" may be used to modify some verbs of appearance and sensation just as if it were an adverb: "look good", "feel good", "seem good", "smell good". (Never, though, "hear good", among others.) All other verbs have to use "well": "handles well", "performs well", "dances well". There's no point in looking for any sense in this: it's just what is.

It's also worth noting that we're also allowed to use "well" for those same verbs of sensation, but it gives them an entirely different meaning: generally "healthy" or "healthily", but also "better than average" in describing the senses. If someone looks good, they're attractive, but if they look well, they're in the pink of health. Likewise, someone who smells good has an appealing odour, while someone who smells well has a particularly finely-tuned nose.

So: that sentence? It needs to be rewritten: "...a good-looking knife that performs well..." would do the trick nicely.


Blogger Frank said...

"If you want your knife too look as good as it performs.." Is this a typo on your part or a mistake from the original article? 'Cause that's the thing that jumped out at me. Or perhaps it was a test to see if we're paying attention? You evil copyeditor, you!

Friday, April 28, 2006 6:58:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

It's in the original. I didn't notice it. I was too busy winkling out the lack of parallel structure to notice it. I am covered in shame.

In fairness to the original author, it's a very easy typo to generate, like writing "than" for "that (or vice versa), which I do all the time, except I always re-read and always notice. And very much to his credit, he got "you're" and "your" correct at the end of the sentence, so obviously he's not an idiot.

Still, I should have noticed that "too", yes? Yes.

Friday, April 28, 2006 8:32:00 PM  

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