Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Prescriptivists gone wild!

Back in the fall 2008 semester, as I was leaving a classroom I had just taught in, I met a student from China who was coming in for the next period. She asked if I could help clear up an issue she had in the English language class she was taking.

And what was this issue? She had been confronted with the following problem:
  • The food tastes _____ (good, well).
She chose "good," and was told that the "correct" answer was "well." Let's think about that for a moment.

What can "the food tastes well" possibly mean? Well is a modifier that usually occurs with verbs and describes the manner in which whatever the verb represents is carried out:
  • Steve Martin plays the banjo very well.
Surely this means that Steve Martin carries out the act of playing the banjo in an admirable manner. So what could "the food tastes well" mean? It can only mean that the food carried out the act of tasting in an admirable manner. But this makes no sense; food can't carry out the act of tasting. Only some entity tasting the food can do that.

This particular problem grows out of the fact that, in spoken English, "adjective" and "adverb" are not well-defined lexical categories. Of course, in standard written English, good is an adjective, and well is usually, but not always (in "I am well" well is an adjective somewhat synonymous with healthy), an adverb. But this distinction exists mostly in the minds of language mavens, not in the minds of native English speakers. I told the student that no native speaker of English would say "the food tastes well," unless they were victims of the kind of linguistic terrorism practiced by language arts and college composition teachers with no knowledge of linguistics. "The food tastes good" is what you say if you want to comment on the quality of the food.

In other words: If somehow I lose my sense of taste, I might be able to say that I can no longer taste well. It will be up to the cannibals to decide whether I taste good or not.


  1. All ths talk of words and tasting reminds me of a poem I wrote several years ago about a boy named Benjamin Spears, who had no ears, but used taste and smell instead.

    I don't know why, but my most visceral reaction to words is their taste. Some people relate words to certain colors, for me it's their flavor.

    Here's a link

  2. And yet "the food eats well" is a perfectly grammatical sentence in standard English. These instrument-subject sentences ("The hammer demolished the doghouse") are one of the things that set English apart from the sane and reasonable languages spoken on planet Earth.

  3. Hello! I came over from Language Log.

    I just wanted to say that I have a slightly different theory for why people would suggest that the food "tastes well" instead of "good."

    We're corrected in school that sentences such as "He did good" and "He wrote the paper quick" should be "He did well" and "He wrote the paper quickly." In other words, using the adjective form is "wrong," and the adverb is "correct." It's always seemed to me that people overgeneralize that rule - after all, I don't recall learning the difference between a linking verb and a non-linking verb in school, and I'm willing to bet even in places where they do teach it, students don't internalize it. So if "he wrote quickly" describes how he wrote, and "he felt bad" describes how he felt, then the correct version must be "he felt badly"! ...That is how it seems to me the logic works in the minds of people who make this mistake.


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