ENGLISCH/859: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (168) I feel good (SB)


168. Feeling good or well?

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook I wonder what you think about the following complaint that I heard the other day in my office: "I don't feel good, I think I'm coming down with a cold." Taking into account that my colleague is not a native speaker of English, I thought he was wrong. But when I tried to explain his mistake to him considering that wrong English always leaves the customer with a bad impression, he argued that this was exactly the same expression his American customer had used before. And I ran out of arguments. Can you help? I think English people would say: I don't feel well.


Frits T. (from Rotterdam/Netherlands)


Dear Mr T.

First of all, you are right. We do say: "I don't feel well", because after verbs indicating physical perceptions like "feel" we normally have an adjective and not an adverb.

So, why do we use "well" and not "good" in the sentence "I don't feel well"? In fact "well" is an adjective in that usage. If you look up the word "well" in a dictionary, you will find that it is not only the adverb connected with "good" e.g. "she thinks very well", but also an adjective, when it is used to mean the opposite of "ill" e.g. "I don't feel well". And like the adjective "ill" the adjective "well" is not normally used before a noun.

We would say "He is a very healthy man" but not "a very well man". Actually, there are one or two usages, in which "well" is used before a noun, e.g. one hears these days about "well women clinics" which are clinics to which women who are well can go to make sure they have none of the medical problems, which sometimes affect women.

And in American usage you can also say: "I am not a well man".

However those examples "well before the noun" are rather unusual. So it is safer to keep to the rule of not using "well" before a noun!

So I've explained how well is an adjective. But what about your example, that you think is completely incorrect: "I don't feel good, I think I'm coming down with a cold".

Well in fact, native speakers of English do use that expression "I don't feel good". They use it quite a lot in speech. In British English though, we must often qualify the word good in this usage. We put a word like "very" or "too" with it. "I don't feel too/very good".

In American English the expression "I (don't) feel good" is used a lot. But there is a slight difference in meaning between "I feel good" and "I feel well". When we say "I feel good" we think of the whole person, physically and mental. We mean, "I have a positive attitude to life and I feel healthy". This explains the way you feel, when you are fit. The Americans are very keen on being fit, so that's why they use this expression a lot. So if you say: "I don't feel good" that is slightly different from saying I don't feel well. Although the two are used in the same context.

To put it in a nutshell we can say both: "I don't feel well. I think I'm coming down with a cold" which means: "I think I've got a cold coming" and "I don't feel good. I think I'm coming down with a cold" which can mean "I feel depressed and unfit, maybe I've got a cold coming".

Hoping that you are someone who always appears to feel good, positive and enthusiastic, I whish you all the best for your career,


Mrs Gobbledygook

3 July 2009