Thursday, August 19, 2010

"I'm happily" Sounds stupid, doesn't it?

You've heard it, I dare say some of you out there probably say it, and it drives me crazy. Here's the scenario: A friend or co-worker walks up to me and we begin a conversation.

Person: "How are you?"
Me: "I'm good. How are you?"
Person: "I'm well."
Me: *smile, but really cringing inside*
Person: *smile, but secretly swelling with a sense of superiority for exhibiting his or her perceived exceptional grammar skills*

I started observing this phenomenon a few years ago. At that time it was a rare occurrence. The first few times I heard the "I'm well" response I thought "Damn, I must have been using incorrect grammar all these years." I honestly couldn't believe I had missed this one. I have always been a stickler for the correct use of adverbs and for years have been lamenting the slow death of the adverb.

When I was a teenager and my folks would tell me to "Drive safe" as I walked out the door, I annoyingly would correct them and say "Drive safely. Drive is a verb therefore it requires an adverb." Yeah I know, makes you want to slap that little know-it-all in the face, but it really did bother me that most people ignored the existence of adverbs. And it's not just the average Joe doing so, just look a couple company slogans that have been used in the past decade:

Fazoli's: Real Italian. Real Fast.
Apple Computers: Think Different.

So for the most part, it seems America is fine with letting the adverb die a slow unnoticed death (or you could say: The adverb is dying SLOWLY and America hasn't noticed - see what I did there?) Then that pesky "I'm well" response emerges and all of a sudden it appears some Americans do indeed care about the ailing adverb. Pretty soon it's a full-blown pandemic. I'm in Tennessee - while lovely, it's not exactly a state known for paramount grammar skills - and I'm getting the "I'm well" response from McDonald's cashiers and building security guards.

Even though it's spreading like crabs at Woodstock, for some reason I never could jump on this particular bandwagon. Well, it turns out my gut was telling me more than "stop eating hot wings before a volleyball match." The "I'm well" response is grammatically incorrect unless you are speaking of your health. Here is a brief explanation from Grammar Girl:

"Even though good is primarily an adjective, it is OK to say, "I am good": am is a linking verb, and you use adjectives after linking verbs.

Aside from the linking-verb-action-verb trickiness, another reason people get confused about this topic is that well can be both an adverb and a predicate adjective. In the sentence He swam well, well is an adverb that describes how he swam. But when you say, “I am well,” you're using well as a predicate adjective. That's ok but, well is reserved to mean “healthy” when it's used in this way. So if you are recovering from a long illness and someone is inquiring about your health, it's appropriate to say, “I am well,” but if you're just describing yourself on a generally good day and nobody's asking specifically about your health, a more appropriate response is, 'I am good.'" You can see the full explanation here.

So now when you hear someone say "I am well." Just think how silly they sound. It is exactly like you asking someone how they feel and they respond: "I'm happily."

Long story short it's a technique people who want to appear smart/intellectual/superior/above you use. Like people who use the word "plethora" or who say: "Please be sure to include Jim, Peter and I on the next email chain." (if you are scratching your head right now, plethora means "a lot" and the correct way to write that sentence is "Please be sure to include Jim, Peter and ME on the next email chain.") What's really more pretentious though - pretentious people screwing up a grammar rule in an attempt to sound even more pretentious, or someone writing a blog about how said pretentious people are screwing up a grammar rule?