Q: I’m Australian, and an American friend often says things like “I better not forget it” instead of “I’d better not forget it.” Is this correct? Is it a case of US usage differing from UK/Australian usage?
A: The idiomatic phrase “had better” (as in “I had better study” or “We’d better go”) is a venerable usage with roots far back in Old English.
The shortened form “better” (as in “I better study” or “We better go”) dates from the 1830s and is used informally in both British and American English.
In fact, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) says it’s not unheard of in your neck of the woods: “In practice this use of an unsupported better is much more common in North America, Australia, and NZ than in Britain.”
Using “better” by itself is fine except in formal English. “In a wide range of informal circumstances (but never in formal contexts) the had or ’d can be dispensed with,” Fowler’s says.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage calls “had better” a standard English idiom and agrees with Fowler’s that “better,” when used alone in this sense, “is not found in very formal surroundings.”
The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the construction without “had” is from a pseudonymous letter to a newspaper by “Major Jack Downing”:
“My clothes had got so shabby, I thought I better hire out a few days and get slicked up a little.” (The letter was published in a book in 1834 but was written in 1831.)
The OED says the abbreviated usage originated in the US, and labels it a colloquialism. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it without reservations.
The Merriam-Webster’s editors give the example “you better hurry,” and says “better” in this sense is a “verbal auxiliary.”
It should be noted that even the full phrase, “had better,” was criticized by some in the 19th century on the ground that it was illogical and couldn’t be parsed.
An 1897 issue of the Ohio Educational Monthly says many teachers found “had better” and other idioms “very difficult to dispose of grammatically.”
“Because some teachers do not understand how to dispose of them, they teach that they are incorrect,” the monthly adds. “They insist upon changing ‘had better’ to ‘would better.’ ”
In other words, the schoolmasters condemned what they couldn’t understand, and offered a replacement that was even harder to justify.
Even the poet Robert Browning disgraced himself here. In early editions of his dramatic poem Pippa Passes, first published in 1841, the final scene has the line “I had better not.” In later editions, Browning changed the line to “I would better not.”
According to William J. Rolfe and Heloise E. Hersey, who edited an 1886 edition of Select Poems of Robert Browning, the poet took a dislike to “the good old English form ‘had better.’ ”
Why? Because he mistook the “I’d” in “I’d better” as a contraction of “I would” instead of “I had.”
Browning once explained in a letter that he was repudiating “the slovenly I had for I’d, instead of the proper I would,” on the advice of his friend Walter Savage Landor, who hotly criticized many well-known English idioms.
As Rolfe and Hersey write in a footnote: “This is essentially the familiar grammar-monger’s objection to had better, had rather, had as lief, etc., that they ‘cannot be parsed’—which is true of many another well-established idiom, and merely shows that the ‘parsers’ have something yet to learn.”
A look at the history of “had better” helps to illuminate its meaning.
The idiom was first recorded in writing in the 10th century, according to the OED.
The original form was “were better,” and it was used with object (or, more properly at that time, dative) pronouns: “him,” “me,” “us,” and so on.
As the OED explains, the phrase me were betere meant “it would be more advantageous for me,” and him wære betere meant “it would be better for him.”
The OED’s earliest example in writing is from a collection known as the Blickling Homilies (971): “Him wære betere thæt he næfre geboren nære.” (“Better it were for him never to have been born.”)
During the Middle English period, the pronouns began changing into the nominative (“he were better,” “I were better,” etc).
And finally, beginning in the 16th century, “were better” gave way to the modern “had better.” As the OED says, “I had better = I should have or hold it better, to do, etc.”
Oxford’s earliest example is from Nicholas Udall’s Thersytes, a farce that some scholars date to 1537: “They had better haue sette me an errande at Rome.”
The OED also cites this line from a letter written by Sir John Harington in the early 1600s: “Who livethe for ease had better live awaie [from Court].”
Historical note: Harington was a courtier to Elizabeth I, and one of his claims to fame is that he designed Britain’s first flushable toilet, which he installed in his manor house in Somerset. He included an image in a work he wrote on the subject.
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