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Watching an old Dr. Who episode, one character said to another,

"Highness, it is not well to think of the past, there is still the future to make."
("The Ribos Operation", 1978)

To my ear, this sounds wrong and should have been,

"Highness, it is not good to think of the past, there is still the future to make."

Unfortunately, other than the way it sounds, I cannot determine the applicable grammar rules to know if I am correct.

7

It is well is an old-fashioned and quite formal phrase meaning approximately it is worthy of approval, so It is not well means “You shouldn’t do that” or “That’s a bad idea”, but considerably politer.

Well was for many centuries used regularly as a predicate adjective in a number of senses, some of which last to this day, particularly the sense in good health:

I hope you are well?
I've been sick but now I'm well.

The writers of historical novels and period dramas are fond of using now-obsolete expressions like it is well to lend an archaic flavour; and it is notable that the Ribos story is set in a culture vaguely reminiscent of the more backward parts of 18th- or 19th-century Eastern Europe.

  • Are you saying that both are correct, but that "good" is more colloquial? – oldbrit Jan 20 '14 at 2:40
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    @oldbrit Unless you want to sound like a character in a costume drama, yes. – StoneyB Jan 20 '14 at 2:44
  • What about context? If the speaker means mental or physical health would be damaged by dwelling on the past, it would be "well", but if it's advice (in this case, about gaining power), it would be "good"? How are you? I'm good. I've crossed off a lot of to-dos. How are you? I'm well. I'm finally over the flu. – oldbrit Jan 20 '14 at 2:54
  • Given the context, I believe the speaker was talking about thinking of the past as an action which gets in the way of taking action to effect the future - So, "good" would correctly communicate the intended meaning. – oldbrit Jan 20 '14 at 3:01
  • @oldbrit I never said what it means, did I?! My apologies - I've added that at the beginning. ... And, again, yes, we would say good today. – StoneyB Jan 20 '14 at 3:02

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