I’m good, I’m fine

About a year ago, Morana and I posted a survey on this blog to try and collect data about attitudes to the flat adverb. We wanted to use the data for a paper we were writing at the time. But we also asked if people could tell us about other usage problems they saw or heard around them, or at least, in as far as they perceived them as such. Amazingly (at first sight that is, since the survey was on the flat adverb), some people mentioned the increasing use of “I’m good” in reply to the question “How are you?”.

But something else is at stake here than the idea that well should be used instead of good. As a Spanish website for learners of English explains the difference, well is used when you are not sick (ill?), and good when you are feeling happy. It seems to me that the complaint rather has to do with the increasing use of “I’m good” in a context where in the past “I’m fine” would be the expected reply, to express both that you were in good health and feeling happy. At least, that is what I was taught to say in school – a long time ago, I admit.

Often, people start commenting on particular features of usage when there is a noticeable increase in frequency of the feature in question. This definitely goes for me: I still remember when I first started noticing the use of “I’m good” in contexts where I expected “I’m fine” – 2011 when we were living in the UK for six months. So is there a real increase of the usage? Not if you check frequencies on Google books, where you can see (with the help of Google n-gram) a spectacular increase not of “I’m good” but of “I’m fine”, both in British and American English. (So the Brits would not be able to blame the Americans for this feature!)

Is there a real or only a perceived increase of “I’m good” at the expense of “I’m fine”? And if there is, is this an age-related feature, and will “I’m good” eventually take over? And for our interests in this project, will “I’m fine/good” develop into a usage problem?

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