Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Better and Best

Posted by Neal on April 29, 2008

Matthew Watson asks:

For some time, I have been wondering about constructions like “He better tell me,” which use “better” as a modal verb. I have always used a separate auxiliary like “had” (e.g. “He had better tell me”) and parsed the sentence as a truncated sort of comparative statement (e.g. short for “He had better tell me than not”). However, I have read so many good writers now that use “better” by itself that I am beginning to think the construction has become an idiom.

Do you know what’s correct – should I use “had” with “better,” and how do you parse a solitary “better”?

CGEL is off its game on this one. It doesn’t mention solitary better at all in the section on modals, and offers only one paragraph on had better. And that paragraph says that had better always refers to present time, starring the sentence He had better have done it himself as ungrammatical. It sounds fine to me, as do these:

She better not have eaten all the cookies
You’d better have finished your homework by the time we get back.

According to both the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage and Garner’s Modern American Usage, the more formal expression is had better, with better by itself not actually wrong, but less formal. But why would plain old better come about in the first place? My guess is that it started out as a phonetic simplification. Using he had better as an example, the first step was probably the contraction of he had to he’d. Over time, speakers probably simplified the string he’d better, pronounced [hidbεɾṛ], to [hibːεɾr], with the [b] assimilating to the following [d]. The colon-like symbol [ː] indicates that the [b] is held for a longer duration than usual (in other words, it’s geminated). Finally, newer speakers simplified by degeminating the [bː], and pronouncing the string as [hibεɾr], or as it would be written out, he better.

The change would have been abetted by the fact that neither he had better nor he better really makes more sense than the other. Why is the had there, a speaker might wonder. With or without it, the main thrust of the expression comes from the better, which in a vague kind of way carries the idea that it’s better for someone to take one course of action than another (the idea that Matthew described). It’s vague in that the meaning of better is clearly involved, but what’s not clear is how the syntax of Subject+(had) better actually gets us there. You just have to write it off as one of those things, and if you leave out the had, then better acts more like other single-word modals, such as should.

However, a thousand years ago the syntax and semantics of better were more transparent. According to the OED, the earliest known citation of this use of better is from 971:

him wær better þæt he næfre ʒeboren

Literally, “for-him [it] were better that he never [was] born”; this is were in its archaic subjunctive use, which would be expressed today by would have been. So originally, be better was an impersonal verb — that is, one that doesn’t have a subject at all, or in Modern English, one whose subject is always it. But eventually the dative-marked “to him” (or whoever something was better for) came to be seen as the subject, and consequently got changed to he. A similar development occurred with best, although the earliest attestation for it is from 1330:

This still doesn’t explain how had got into the picture (or where the accompanying form of be went). The earliest attestation for had with better is from 1465, and the earliest for had with best is from 1559:

had be better … that it had never be done
you had best omit the worke

The better example suggests to me that the had may have come in as part of a have+be auxiliary, and stayed after the be disappeared, but I don’t know enough about Middle English to have confidence in this scenario. Maybe Karl Hagen would know. Also, there might be something on the topic in Visser’s An Historical Syntax of the English Language, but I don’t have that reference handy.

One thing I wondered as I researched this topic is why good didn’t get modalized in the way that better and best did. Maybe it’s related to the fact that modal better and best don’t have any difference in gradation — some people use one, some the other, and maybe some even use both, but the two words seem to have the same meaning. So in Modern English, you can’t say something like:

You had good get to the airport an hour early, but you had better get there two hours early, and you had best get there two hours early and already have printed your boarding pass before you left the house.

4 Responses to “Better and Best”

  1. Matthew said

    Thanks Neal. That clears things up for the most part, especially the Old English quotation. Mulling over the post, I just thought of some lines from Scott that shed a bit of light on the matter:

    “And better had they ne’er been born
    Who read to doubt, or read to scorn.”

    Here the word “had” is used subjunctively, a construction which was common in poetry of the time and which we still use in sentences like “Had I known, I would have fainted.” So the idea of the lines is:

    “(It would have been) better (if) they had ne’er been born, who…”

    Perhaps our use of “had better” descends from the same construction, only with inverted word order and an accompanying change from indicative to optative meaning. In other words, maybe “Better had they ne’er been born” used as an exclamation, became “They had better ne’er been born” used as a warning or admonition.

  2. Karl Hagen said

    The analogous constructions “had rather” and “had liefer,” the latter common in Chaucer, are both attested earlier than “had better”, and were probably the more direct models for “had better” than the constructions with be.

    And there is a form with the positive “good”, but it requires “as”, as in this sentence from the Motteux translation of Don Quixote:

    “They had as good take a lion by the beard, as meddle with mine.”

    I would also say that this use of had historically did develop from a subjunctive use, but I don’t think there’s anything in the structure of Present-Day English that compels us to view it as such any longer. Now, I would simply call it a verbal idiom that expresses a deontic modality.

  3. Neal said

    Thanks, Karl!

  4. The Ridger said

    I think I probably say “I better…” but I write “I’d better…” I know my mother used to say “You better had…”.

    But you’re absolutely right that it’s the better that carries the weight here.

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