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The greeting How are you? is asking How are you doing in general?

How are you?
I'm well. [Misunderstood the question.]

because well as an adjective which means:

in good health especially after having suffered illness or injury

This would be an answer to How are you doing physically, how is your health?

How are you?
I'm good. [Misunderstood the question.]

because good as an adjective means:

having moral excellence or admirableness

This would be an answer to

How would you describe your character, superman? I'm good.

How are you?
I'm doing good. [Grammatically incorrect.]

because good is an adjective, not an adverb.

How are you?
I'm doing well. [Correct.]

because well is an adverb describing how you are doing.

How are you?
I'm doing fine. [Correct.]

because fine is an adjective which means:

being satisfactory or in satisfactory condition


Why do so many people say one of the first three responses?

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It's funny that the first example is the answer they taught me when I started to study English as second language. –  kiamlaluno Aug 13 '10 at 1:39
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Shouldn't it be then reasonable to expect you to ask how are you DOING? / I'm doing good, instead of how are you? –  bangoker Aug 13 '10 at 5:48
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Hmm. For what it's worth, I think if you don't want to go all the way and say "How are you doing?" it's only fair not to expect everyone else to go all the way and say "I'm doing well." Yes, it's understood that you mean "doing in general" in the question. I think, personally, "doing in general" is also implied in the response. –  kitukwfyer Aug 13 '10 at 15:01
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This is how people talk; they are not "getting it wrong." Others telling them they are getting their native language wrong are themselves in error, IMO. –  moioci Aug 22 '10 at 22:06
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I think this question is actively pernicious. By implying that there's something wrong with <i>the way real people actually use the "how are you" standard greeting-and-response</i> in the title, you run a serious risk of hopelessly confusing students of the language who don't know any better. There is nothing wrong with "I'm well" as a response to "How are you". Whether it is stylized or idiomatic, that's another question. –  thesunneversets Nov 19 '10 at 23:34

7 Answers 7

up vote 45 down vote accepted

The reason people give the responses you label as “wrong” is because well and good have more meanings than the ones you cite.

Merriam-Webster, for example, gives definitions that make sense of the three examples you label “wrong”:

  • For “I’m well”, there is well (adjective) 1b: being in satisfactory condition or circumstances

  • For “I’m good”, there is good (adjective) 2e: free from infirmity or sorrow

  • For “I’m doing good”, there is good (adverb) 1: WELL

So they all seem fine to me.

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24  
Surely you don’t believe that substituting words with their dictionary definitions should always result in normal-sounding discourse? –  nohat Aug 13 '10 at 1:14
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we used to tell "I'm fine" is it correct –  RSK Aug 13 '10 at 8:50
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If by “satisfactory condition or circumstances” the editors of the dictionary meant only financial condition, they would have said so. As it stands, stating that one is in a satisfactory condition is exactly the kind of answer a reasonable person would expect in response to a query about how one is. –  nohat Aug 13 '10 at 14:27
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Ok, in that sense "I am well" means the same as "I am fine" as I stated, and it is in the Merriam Webster so it must be accepted. I'll try to get used to it. :-) –  Edward Tanguay Aug 13 '10 at 15:34
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The traditional answers to "I'm good," "fine," or "not bad." Criticizing it for improper word usage is about as silly as criticizing people for saying "Good morning" because it lacks a verb. –  Ascendant Oct 5 '11 at 8:37

I'm really not so sure the first is incorrect. To say that you are well is, to my understanding, a correct way of describing your health.

I've never seen the use of "well" in that context formally corrected. Is it really wrong?

That said, I think many people simply exchange "well" with "good", whatever the situation.

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How are you? / I'm well. / Oh, I'm sorry, were you in the hospital? / No. / Oh, you mean you're doing well. / Yeah. –  Edward Tanguay Aug 13 '10 at 0:50
    
A few examples from dictionary.com put the adjective in a different light: "All is well with us." or "It is well that you didn't go." or "I am well as I am." It doesn't necessarily mean that you've recovered from sickness, but is typically used in that context. –  Paul Lammertsma Aug 13 '10 at 0:54
    
When I hear "I'm well" all the time I feel like saying, "we're not all in a hospital here inquiring about everybody's health everyday", the greeting "How are you?" means "how are things going in general" and the response "I'm well" brings the subject back to "personal health matters". What people mean to say is: "Things are going well." –  Edward Tanguay Aug 13 '10 at 0:56

If you want to take this narrow interpretation, then the question is wrong. It should be:

How are you doing? / I'm doing well.

You are, apparently, not interested in how a person is, because evidently all the common answers are not acceptable to you, but in how a person is doing.

In practice, no one really cares about the difference, but there is a fault in your question.

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I think How are you? is actually a genuine question and greeting. Is is asking, as you say, How are you doing? or How are things going in general? and contrary to what many people say about American superficiality in using this question, I think that most people who ask How are you? after not seeing you for a period of time would like to know How are things going in general for you? But they are probably not specifically asking: (1) how are you doing physically, how is your health?, or (2) how are you doing financially? or (3) how would you describe your character? –  Edward Tanguay Aug 13 '10 at 9:28
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Actually, you aren't interested in anything the person says. "How are you?" is an informal greeting said out of politeness. It's very rare that anyone cares what the answer is. –  kubi Aug 13 '10 at 9:51

Why do they get it wrong? Perhaps sometimes because they're not really listening to the question. It seems to me that these sorts of pleasantries are often responded to by rote, which means the individual response is one of habit.

While I'll agree that the "incorrect" versions grate on the ears, the "correct" version is perhaps a little too prescriptive for my tastes.

Since you're probably the asker in these exchanges, perhaps a workaround would be to ask a question that is less likely to elicit a rote response. "How is your day going" or "How was your weekend" or something that would nudge the respondent to respond to the question you asked instead of just spitting out a generic response.

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+1 for the idea of rephrasing the question –  Edward Tanguay Aug 13 '10 at 8:36

I think this question is harmful and offensive, as thesunneversets said.

The answers to the question "How are you?" that the questioner says are wrong are in fact all perfectly good English.

The questioner is grossly misinterpreting the dictionary by extracting one area of meaning and ignoring the rest. He simply doesn't understand the real meanings of the words "good" and "well".

The Wordsmyth dictionary gives this:

Good

Adjective

definition 1: having qualities that are desired, enjoyed, or beneficial; desirable. synonyms: beneficial, desirable, positive, well

Other dictionaries give something similar. "Good" is a broad term meaning what is desirable, well, healthy, positive, etc.

To the question "how are you?" the following are all fine and grammatical:

I'm well

I'm good

I'm fine

I'm OK

I just hope learners are not led astray by this question.

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To answer the general greeting "How are you doing?" with "I'm well" is either non-grammatical (you meant "I'm doing well") or answering a different question ("I'm concerned about your health, how are you doing?"). Understanding this distinction is helpful for people learning English because it points out the difference between adverbs and adjectives and points out the different meanings of "doing well" and "am well". It is also an example of how a grammatical error has found wide usage among native speakers even though it technically remains a grammatical error. –  Edward Tanguay Sep 15 '11 at 14:28
    
Let's continue the conversation. "How are you doing?" "I'm well". "That answer is either ungrammatical or answers the wrong question". "F*** off". When someone asks "How are you doing", I'll answer any way I like. –  gnasher729 Dec 12 at 10:07

People get these "wrong" for a few reasons:

  1. The learned pretension that "well" sounds more educated than "good"
  2. A general interchangeability between well and good that might not be correct in all situations, but is common enough to forgive.
  3. An overall lack of giving-a-shit over a question that people ask simply to be polite and really don't want more than some grunt of a response.

For the last one, it may sound cynical, but it has more to do with the problem than anything else. It's not that "it doesn't matter" how you respond, it's that no one is really paying attention to the response, so the "wrong" replies are never corrected, and thus perpetuate.

But also, since I am cynical, it really doesn't matter and there is no wrong reply since the response is really just a symbolic gesture intended to return another meaningless social gesture. When you think about it, "How are you doing?" is asking for the state of something that is being done. "How am I doing what?" But since it's a gesture, as is the response, as long as both parties understand the symbolic response, the literal connotation is nearly insignificant.

Having said all that, my pet peeve is the classic "I'm feeling poorly" instead of "I'm feeling bad". Again, another case of learned word-classism, both favoring "poor" to "bad" and thinking that adverbs are better than adjectives, but with the literal connotation being "My ability to feel is poor." I always want to say "Do you feel as poorly as you speak?"

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Poorly in that context is an adjective, not an adverb, and it means "unwell". However, you're right that the OP's question is asking about convention: everything he says is wrong is not, but merely a conventional answer to a conventional question. –  Andrew Leach Apr 19 '12 at 7:05
    
It's only out of convention that poorly gets an adjective listing in a dictionary. -ly used to mean something, damn it! (And hopefully it will again some day.) –  Anthony Apr 19 '12 at 7:16
    
It's been used as an adjective since before 1750, according to MW. How do you categorise the adjective/adverb well in "Yesterday I was ill, now I'm feeling well"? Context is all, I think. –  Andrew Leach Apr 19 '12 at 7:27
    
You missed my non-adverbial use of hopefully! –  Anthony Apr 19 '12 at 7:32

I would normally give the response "Not bad" - which I think answers all parts of the question grammatically and the tone of voice distinguishes between I am just about continuing to exist to the world is a wonderful place and I feel like doing a little dance about it!

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