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One of the classic battles prescriptive grammarians fight is that "You did good." is grammatically wrong, while "You did well." is correct. The justification for this is that "well" is a legitimate adverb but "good" is not. But as a native English speaker I cannot think of a single other case where "You did [adverb]." does not sound very obviously wrong in a similar environment, apart from synonyms and antonyms of "well".

From a grammatical standpoint "do" is either a transitive verb or an auxiliary verb. In "You did good.", "good" is the direct object (a noun), while "well" can only be an adverb. The only times when "do" is ever used without a main verb or direct object is in cases of deletion of a predicate that was stated immediately prior, e.g. "I didn't do it, but he did" or "I didn't go, but he did". I cannot think of any other cases where it is grammatically correct to use "do" without a main verb or direct object, and in such environments adverbs are never used because these are cases of deletion of the predicate. Yet if you were to say "You did good/well." it would almost invariably be in an environment where the predicate was not stated immediately prior.

Is it possible that prescriptive grammarians are simply wrong, and that ages of this prescription has made this particular case sound acceptable despite being a grammatical structure that is otherwise obviously wrong?

EDIT: Since this is a topic that is coming up in comments in multiple places, I'll put it here. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/do meaning 2 describes "do well" under the heading "Act or behave in a specified way". We might then suppose that the rule is not that "do" requires a main verb or direct object as I state above, but rather requires a complement which specifies what is done or how (which could be an adverb or adverbial phrase). This implies that any adverb describing manner should work in the phrase "You did [adverb]". How then do we account for the fact that most adverbs that are not a synonym or antonym of "well" (e.g. quickly, solemnly, angrily, etc.) do not sound grammatical in such a context?

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    This not a question of grammar, it's a question of semantics; I can do good and I can do well. They are both grammatical. I can do good by volunteering at the food bank, I can do well by studying before my test. – Jim Sep 20 '14 at 19:49
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    "You did poorly" or you did poor"? "You did splendidly" or "you did splendid"? "You did remarkably" or "you did remarkable"? I don't think your premise is correct. – Peter Shor Sep 20 '14 at 20:00
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    If your last paragraph is meant to be the question, the answer is of course it is. It's not only possible that they are wrong, it's been demonstrated that they are wrong, thousands of times already, over centuries. So don't get upset if nobody is terribly surprised about this. – John Lawler Sep 20 '14 at 20:00
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    @Justin: the problem is the do is not usually an intransitive verb. It only acts intransitively with certain idioms. You can't say do beautiful or do simple, either. – Peter Shor Sep 20 '14 at 20:54
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    My, my, aren't we touchy? If you'd like the explain why "do well" is grammatically acceptable but "do quickly/solemnly/angrily" is not, that would be the perfect answer to my question. Until then please refrain from attitude sans content. – Justin Olbrantz Sep 20 '14 at 23:27
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I can think of lots of instances where "to do" is used as an intransitive verb, e.g. "He did as he was told to do". "He did well" is impeccable English. "He did good" would work if you meant "He did good rather than evil". To use "good" as an adverb is not standard English.

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    In "He did as he was told to do" "as he was told to do" is acting in the same function as a direct object, so I'd argue that's still a transitive use. This becomes more obvious when you change one word without really changing the meaning: "He did what he was told to do" ("what" is obviously the direct object). – Justin Olbrantz Sep 20 '14 at 19:43
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    "What" is a direct object. "As" is not a direct object. The fact that you can say the same thing in two ways does not mean that the structure is the same in both instances. – fdb Sep 20 '14 at 19:46
  • Hmm. oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/as defines that use of "as" as a conjunction rather than an adverb (conjunction 2). Makes me wonder if this might be likened to the deletion I initially mentioned save that the thing deleted is after and not before "do". But let's assume for the sake of argument that you are right; what can explain why no other adverb (not adverbial phrase) can be used with "You did [adverb]"? – Justin Olbrantz Sep 20 '14 at 20:00
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    +1 "It's the Old Dope Peddler, Doing well by doing good." - Tom Lehrer. – StoneyB Sep 20 '14 at 20:01
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    @Justin: the OED seems to disagree with Oxford Dictionaries Online. It has a section (13) of the definition of do dedicated solely to do well (along with similar adverbs like badly, alright, quite nicely), meaning that they think it's a special case. It also says that people have been saying do well since 1400 (‘We sal’, he said, ‘do nu ful wele’). It sounded acceptable long before prescriptive grammarians started meddling with English. – Peter Shor Sep 21 '14 at 0:19
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The reason is less one of grammar and more one of the various different meanings of the verb "to do". Although we think of "do" as being a catch-all, usable-in-all-situations type of word, in fact it isn't: each meaning of the word is very precise and requires its own particular grammatical structure to be acceptable to an English speaker.

So when you say you did well, or poorly, or splendidly, you are effectively saying you "acted" or "performed" well (or poorly, etc.). In my Shorter OED this is meaning II.1 ("To put forth action; to act") or II.2 ("To perform deeds; to work"). A slightly different meaning of "you did well" is to have fared well, but still the general notion is the same. However, just because the word is understood to have this meaning doesn't mean it is synonymous with the definition: you may have acted properly but you wouldn't say "you did properly".

The question of grammar returns as a secondary consideration because this version of "to do" is clearly intransitive.

"You did good" is a quite different meaning, and equally clearly transitive. "To do" in this sense means "to bring into existence" or "to accomplish". And although we are far more tolerant of generalised usage of the verb in this sense, we still insist on differentiating "do" and "make" in numerous cases: you did 50 mph but you made record time, you did the dishes but you made dinner, you did wonders but (if you were a powerful ruler many centuries ago) you made wonders.

Finally, looking at different dictionary definitions of "do" gives further proof of the highly specialised usage of each sense of the word over time. My 1933 edition of the Shorter OED groups all of the above transitives in definition I. This includes doing a speed ("do a mile a minute") or doing a good deed. The online definition linked to above, however, splits many of these uses into quite different categories.

So although some might claim that "you did well" is a special case, it would rather seem that most of our current uses of the verb "to do" are special cases in themselves. Grammar tells us how to do "do" well, style guides tell us not to do "do" too often, and changing speech shows us how we cannot (literally) do "do" to die, we can (figuratively) do "do" to death.

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The reason using "well" works so well is because if you would provide a direct object it would focus on the object of the sentence rather than the action of the sentence. The point of saying it is to talk about the action. If you did your test well, you could still do poorly on your test. If the sentence needs context, a prepositional phrase is usually enough.


Do is often used as a shortcut in speech. Most likely it is that that particular usage has been always used with do. Others haven't. It is a grade on performance, also, which I meant to mention. None of the other adverbs that I can think of grade performance, they rather describe how it was done. So "well" wouldn't really be a "manner" adverb. It doesn't describe the manner in which it was done, only the score. Of course, there are times when the direct object is not really meant to be implied, and then it is simply a complement. This has nothing to do with grammarians.

I believe this usage predates prescriptive grammarians.

The sentence "he did as he was told", is virtually identical, although it is not grading performance, per se. The meaning of this statement actually requires the absence of the object in most cases. "He did as he was told" is synonymous to "he carried out the order". What that order is is irrelevant. The focus is on the action, this time with a conjunction ("as"), but no direct object.

  • But then how do we explain why other manner adverbs cannot be used? That would still leave the focus on the action. – Justin Olbrantz Sep 21 '14 at 5:28
  • OK, I've added to my answer. – Arlen Beiler Sep 21 '14 at 12:21
  • Okay, making progress. But then how does "He did as he was told" work, which I would hesitate to put in the same class as you describe? – Justin Olbrantz Sep 22 '14 at 6:09
  • Once again, the meaning requires the absence of the object in some cases and in others has an implied object in the context. If he did as he was told, it is synonymous to "he carried out the order". Once again the focus is on the action, this time with a conjunction. – Arlen Beiler Sep 23 '14 at 2:56

protected by tchrist Oct 27 '15 at 22:06

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