Grammar Geek Alert: this is not a there-their-they're post. This one will tick off 90% of you. But hey, I've taken lots of suggestions for W.O.W. in the past few posts. This time, I'm going to discuss one that's getting on my nerves. Most of you aren't bothered by this one, but I'm tellin' ya, my ear HATES this one and it's only gotten worse now that there's a commercial FOX News has been playing lately that prominently features the term, "Well-paying job."
What's wrong with that, you ask?
Well, part of the reason it's so annoying to me is that despite the fact that it sounds WRONG to me, I couldn't articulate why. Now that I've dissected it, I don't feel much better, but I'm going to get it out of my system once and for all. For today.
So a "well-paying job" is, obviously, one that pays well. But unfortunately, it doesn't work grammatically. Let's think about it. Job is a noun. We modify nouns with adjectives. We landed a "good job." Good is an adjective. So is the job a volunteer job, or a paying job? Now we're describing the possible job with two other adjectives. Fine so far.
Now to get a little deeper into the grammar text...we normally modify adjectives with other adjectives. We don't buy a lightly green dress or taste a juicily ripe apple. (Yes, there are numerous exceptions, but they fall into distinct categories. This doesn't seem to fall in one of those.) And we don't accept a lowly-paying job, or even a highly-paying job. It's either low-paying, or high-paying. (I'm aware that lowly can also be an adjective, but not in this sense.)
So then what's with well-paying?
Well is an adverb. Most of the time. It's an adjective when you're discussing whether you're sick or well, but that's not the operative function here. When you are paid well, you're compensated adequately, and well is the adverb that describes or modifies the verb paid. But in the term "well-paying," the paying part is NOT functioning as a verb. Remember, it's the adjective describing job. So modifying it with an adverb can sound awkward to the tuned ear. It needs to be modified by an adjective.
All right, to get even stickier, paying looks like a verb, right? And in many cases it is. I'll be paying you on Friday. (Yeah, I've heard that one before.) And since many people aren't aware that in the phrase well-paying the paying is not a verb, they feel perfectly justified in modifying it with a good adverb like well.
Well...if well-paying isn't correct, then what is? Good-paying? Uh, technically (and nauseatingly), yes. But as the snooty John Kerry discovered in 2004 when he repeatedly used the term good-paying jobs, being too correct these days can brand you either elitist or stupid. Or both. Don't get me started on John Kerry...but he was (unadvisedly) correct about the jobs. He just didn't get the chance to create those millions of good-paying jobs.
Hmmm....what to do, what to do. Several years ago, one of my favorite grammar gurus, the late James Kilpatrick, addressed this in his column, opting not to use the technically correct but ill-sounding (did ya catch that?) good-paying, and instead coming closer to the Granny disposition of things:
Elena Brenna of Port Ludlow, Wash., winces at news that college graduates will be hard put in June to find "well-paying" jobs. Should it be "good-paying" jobs or "well-paid" jobs? The court dismisses "good-paying" and inclines toward "well-paid," but recommends "jobs that pay well."
Granny's verdict: You can make a case (and believe me, I haven't begun to scratch the surface) for either well-paying or good-paying. Current convention favors the former; fastidious grammarians prefer the latter and eschew the former. I don't like the option of "well-paid jobs" either, because jobs aren't paid -- people are. The safest advice, then is just to recast it. Don't get caught trying to sound correct and then "outed" by people who know better. Just say it another way. You don't want the John Kerrys of the world looking down on you, now do you?