Don’t You Think You Had Better Do This Instead?
by Owen Fourie
Am I right in saying that you gave somebody some advice less than an hour ago?
Think about it. How often do you advise someone to do something? Giving advice is a common daily activity in our interaction with others.
You better do this
Perhaps, in giving advice, you sometimes use these words: “You better do this.” If you search for this phrase on the Internet, you’ll find it is commonly used.
There is no surprise, then, in learning that many accept this as being grammatically correct. What is surprising is to find out that the correct form is “you had better do this.”
You might find this difficult to accept because you are so used to the more common expression, “you better do this,” which you hear so often and also see in print.
This common usage will remain. It will continue to be used in informal speech and in informal writing.
Formally, you had better do this
In formal writing and speaking, however, you would be wise to demonstrate that you are aware of the correct usage, and write or say, “had better.”
The contracted form is perfectly acceptable in speech: “You’d better do this.”
The negative form is constructed by placing not after better: “You had better not do this,” or “you’d better not do this.”
The intention behind this usage, formally or informally, is specific and serious. The person you are speaking to would be well advised to do precisely what you have stated or be prepared to face serious consequences if they don’t.
What’s missing when you say, “you better do this”?
If you say “you better do this,” you are failing to use a verb. The word do in this usage is not the verb. It is an infinitive—a verb form but not a verb. It is a bare infinitive, without the marker to.
If you say “you had better do this,” you are using had as a verb. It is the past tense and past participle of the verb have.
Perhaps, this is where there is difficulty in grasping the correctness of this form. If had is past tense, how can it be used in a piece of advice about the present and the future?
You’d better grasp the correct grammar
Let Fowler throw some light on the matter:
… the word had in this phrase is not the mere auxiliary of mood or tense, but a true verb meaning find: You had better do it = You would find to-do-it better; You had better have done it = You would find to-have-done-it better… [Fowler, H. W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. London: Oxford UP, 1957. Print. p. 225]
Note how Fowler endorses the position of had as a true verb and the state of do as an infinitive.
As far as your formal usage is concerned, don’t you think you had better do this instead?
Are there other common usages that you suspect might be grammatically incorrect? Let’s discuss them here. Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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