Sunday 13 May 2012

On should better

A correspondent writes to ask about should better, which he has encountered from time to time, and wonders whether it is idiomatic English. He gives two examples, both taken from published books:

'The means by which one can solve the definitional equations are some very simple properties, which one should better specify in advance, and these are the properties of and and of yields.'

'One should better pay attention to what Darwin and Wallace had to say about the same problem. When faced with the monumental task of classifying natural life, both biologists came to the conclusion that all divisions were arbitrary.'

He asks: are they synonymous with had better do X or with specify/pay attention in a better way?

I think the context suggests the latter, in both cases. The first quote is from an Italian logician, Giovanni Sambin, in his One Hundred Years of Intuitionism, p.305, and he makes it very clear in the surrounding paragraphs what the 'better specification' is. Better is an adverbial modifier here. The string means 'which it would be better to specify in advance'.

The second quote is evern clearer, when we examine the context. It's from a book called A Scientific Model of History, by Juan J Gomez-Ibarra, p. 28, and in the previous paragraph we read:

'Should we reduce the figure of twenty-one civilizations down to twenty because of... Or, should we better rename the two societies as...'

The inverted order suggests that better is modifying rename - 'we should rename in a better way'. In which case, the 'we should better' usage follows on naturally. He is using better to modify pay attention. He doesn't mean 'ought to'.

So why was my correspondent uncertain? It's because there is interference from the had better ('ought to') construction, which has led to the use of a modal should better as a blend (of should X and had better X). I've heard this usage in several regional dialects, but it hasn't (yet) established itself as idiomatic standard English. I've also heard it quite a lot from learners of English as a foreign language. It's a usage which usually poses no problem of interpretation in speech, and is probably already a feature of English as a lingua franca. But, as we see from these examples, it is waiting in the wings to upset any adverbial use of better following should. For this reason, I'd avoid it myself, and go for an alternative syntactic solution, such as replacing better by rather or rephrasing (as above) with a more explicit adverbial phrase.


John Cowan said...

I would change one should better to one would do better.

Anonymous said...

This example is puzzling:

"Perhaps one should better say a duel, or more properly yet, a tilt; for Black Bill and Big Dan, mounted like knights in the bows of their boats with their spear-like harpoons in their hands, lacked only shields to complete the curious ..."

From: Boys' Life - Dec 1934 - Page 42

And this comment in Higher Lessons in English: A Work on English Grammar and Composition by Alonzo Reed, Brainerd Kellogg (1913) wrote:

A peculiar use of had is found in the expressions had rather go and had better go, condemned by many grammarians who suppose had to be here used incorrectly for would or should. Of these expressions the "Standard Dictionary," an authority worthy of our attention says:

"Forms disputed by certain grammatical critics from the days of Samuel Johnson, the critics insisting upon the substitution of would or should, as the case may demand, for had; but had rather and had better are thoroughly established English idioms having the almost universal popular and literary sanction of centuries. 'I would rather not go,' is undoubtedly correct when the purpose is to emphasize the element of choice, or will, in the matter; but in all ordinary cases 'I had rather not go' has the merit of being idiomatic and easily and universally understood.

"If for 'You had better stay at home' we substitute 'You should better stay at home,' an entirely different meaning is expressed, the idea of expediency giving place to that of obligation."

In the analysis of "I had rather go," had is the predicate verb, the infinitive go is the object complement, and the adjective rather completes had and belongs to go, i.e., is objective complement. Had (=should hold or regard) is treated as a past subjunctive. Rather is the comparative of the old adjective rathe = early, from which comes the idea of preference. The expression means, "I should hold going preferable."

The expressions "You had better stay," "I had as lief not be," are similar in construction to "I had rather go." "I had sooner go" is condemned by grammarians because sooner is never an adjective. If sooner is here allowed as an idiom, it is a modifier of had. The expression equals, "I should more willingly have going."

Prunodiel said...

Would it be correct to amend the quotes saying 'which one should specify better in advance' and 'One should pay better attention'? In my non-native mind this reflects the 'in a better way' meaning, but I always run the risk to borrow grammar structures from my mother tongue (Spanish).

David Crosbie said...

Rather than a blend, could it be the result of this?

1. interpreting 'd better as a reduction of would better

2. substituting should as a more urgent modal for would.

Unknown said...

I just came cross the following passage in Fernald, James. 1910. Better say: A book of helpful suggestions for the correct use of English words and phrases. (another prescriptivist guide!)

'If for "You had better stay at home," we substitute "You should better stay at home," an entirely different meaning is expressed, the idea of expediency giving place to that of obligation' (p. 16).

Unknown said...

Keeping aside cases like "X should better verb" in the sense of "X should verb in a better way", it seems that "should better" as a modal verb is non-existent in standard modern British English. I've searched the Guardian and the Times, and I found one relevant example only - obviously a "foreignism":

'Putin replied: "Well, speaking for myself I am prepared to do so, but I believe you should better address this question to the Russian audience."' (The Times, 2009, January 4)

As a matter of fact, the Longman Dictionary of Common Errors lists "should better" as a typical mistake:

My friends warned me that I had better/*should better be careful.

On the other hand, I have a question about the following pair of sentences:

Hadn't we better phone the police? (from Leech 2004, section 150b)
Should we phone the police?

Is there any difference? Which one is more common?

Heather said...

Regarding your comment: "I think the context suggests the latter, in both cases."

You should better//pay attention = You ought to pay attention.

You should//better pay attention = Pay more attention than you are now.

I'd say the context is telling us we had better/ought to pay attention.

Mar said...

And these example might be signs that the form is appearing in English as a lingua franca, or at least in International English circles.

I think you should better speak to a software expert near you.!category-topic/youtube/feedback--suggestions/9_DjohWwfaw

If the leaders from eastern UP had any grievance, then they should better speak to Netaji, instead of blaming him.

I think you should better speak to your agent because there are different banks which offer different mortgage packages.

"I think you should better apologize to Minerva for being so naughty," he heard his guardian say gently, before he drifted off to sleep.

The blood is still fresh and instead of accusing Serbs, you should better apologize to them!

Anonymous said...

From the Reed-Kellogg text, above:


"I had rather not verb" is not in my variety of English. Is it in yours?

DC said...

I'd rather V is fine for me.

Anonymous said...

But what is contracted there, Davis?

Anonymous said...

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage covers this similarly to "Boys' Life" and more.

Anonymous said...

DC said: "I've heard this usage in several regional dialects, but it hasn't (yet) established itself as idiomatic standard English."

Cab you remember which dialects you heard it in, David?

DC said...

It's difficult to refer back in a sequence when there are so many Anonymouses. But re the first Anonymous above, the one that calls me Davis: J was contracting the sentence used in the previous post - but the beauty of this construction is that the contraction neutralizes the various expansions it could have. As for the other Anonymous: I'm travelling at the moment, and don't have access to my files, but I remember hearing this in various northern British dialects, and also in the West Country. It would be good to hear from non-anonymous people as to whether they use it in their area.

David Crosbie said...

Alexander Bochkov

Hadn't we better phone the police? (from Leech 2004, section 150b)
Should we phone the police?

The former isn't really an open question. It amounts to:

I think the right thing to do is to phone the police now. Don't you agree?

where right could mean 'correct' or could mean 'expedient'.

A closer paraphrase would be

Shouldn't we phone the police?

Personally, I find Hadn't we better...? more polite. There's a danger that Shouldn't we ...? might be taken as a criticism for not phoning the police.

David Crosbie said...


"I had rather not verb" is not in my variety of English. Is it in yours?

There are at least two literary uses (albeit without not) that — although somewhat archaic — are current in that they're quite often quoted:

From Hamlet:
I had rather the town crier spoke my lines

From Doctor Johnson:

If the man who turnips cries
Cry not when his father dies
'Tis a proof that he had rather
Have a turnip than his father.'

David Crosbie said...

Here's an example of I had rather with not

From Shakespeare (Cymbeline)

I had rather not be so noble as I am

More up to date, but with the verb elliptic, from Pride and Prejudice

Any place would do, of about three or four hundred a year: but, however, do not speak to Mr. Darcy about it, if you had rather not.

However marginal had rather not VERB may be in contemporary English, it clearly had a long history. It wasn't just an aberration.

DC said...

Indeed. Thanks for these examples.

David Crosbie said...

I've realised what the test is for detecting whether 'd rather is contacted from had or from would. Which of these can you say?

You'd rather do something else, wouldn't you?
You'd rather do something else, hadn't you?

Similarly with

So would/had I

If you'd rather not do that, what ↘would/had you rather do?
In this style of speaking, I personally can't say had, but I can imagine a mannered prose style in which I might just possibly write it.

Anonymous said...

Could someone provide used examples of "should better" (meaning "had better")?

David Crosbie said...


If you google should better you'll find numerous examples, some ambiguous but many that could only mean 'had better'. The trouble is that the writer could a non-native speaker, a speaker of an unusual regional variety or just somebody writing in a hurry — and there's no easy way of telling that this isn't the case.

Eric said...

Wonderful blog.
Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

David Crosbie (and Professor Crystal),

You've raised an interesting point re: "had better" in tag questions.

I don't think I've seen it discussed much, except maybe McCawley 1998:

"In certain cases it is possible to for either the auxiliary verb or the pronoun of the tag to deviate from its counterpart in the host S:

(18d). You had better leave now, hadn't/shouldn't you?" (p. 506).

So you're saying you'd rather use "would" here?

David Crosbie said...


So you're saying you'd rather use "would" here?

Speaking for myself, no. I could rephrase your question as:

You'd rather use "would" here, would you?

But I don't usually interpret 'd better as would better. So even if your example were:

You'd better leave now

I couldn't tag it wouldn't you?

But the question doesn't arise since the actual example is

You had better leave now

So the only possible seeking-agreement tags are the regular hadn't you? and the tag with the usual auxiliary with that meaning: shouldn't you?

I wouldn't personally say

You had better leave now, shouldn't you?

But I would make the substitution to avoid the word oughtn't

You ought to leave now, shouldn't you?

The combination 'd better/had better is — for me — always an admonition, never a piece of advice based on comparison. For the latter, I would say

It'd' be better to leave now, wouldn't it?
You'd do better leaving now, wouldn't you?
You'd be better off leaving now, wouldn't you?

I might even say

You'd be better to leave now, wouldn't you?