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I specifically want to know why the past tense of the word 'have' is used in this phrase. In modern casual English(at least in the US), everyone says ' I should better get going' or they completely omit the word 'had' and say (and even write) 'I better get going'. I've read all posts on the internet regarding this phrase and not one single person questioned the word 'had' in this construction.

Cambridge says this but refrains from explaining the origin of the word 'had' in this phrase:

We use had better to refer to the present or the future, to talk about actions we think people should do or which are desirable in a specific situation. The verb form is always had, not have. We normally shorten it to ’d better in informal situations. It is followed by the infinitive without to:

Could someone please shed light on this?

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Had better in [had better + bare infinitive] can be seen as a two-word item that functions as a modal verb, meaning essentially should or ought to. (At least in terms of traditional grammar; modern grammars likely better classify and/or describe this.)

What seem like past forms (preterites) in modals do not necessarily confer a past meaning on the infinitives they modify. An example of this is Could you help me? Although could can be used as the past tense of can, it does not indicate any sense of the past in this example.

A deep explanation as to why this is so relies on understanding the evolution of English at a fairly sophisticated level, which is beyond my knowledge.

Should better is not normally used in Standard English, or if it occurs, is probably uttered by some speakers informally and may have arisen as a sort of fusion of should and [had] better.

The following Wikipedia article, in somewhat fragmented form, addresses some of these issues, and includes a subsection specifically on had better and ought to.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_modal_verbs

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  • Thank you for the detailed explanation! One question, though, if 'had' acts like a modal verb such as 'should' and 'ought to' why is 'should better' not grammatical then? I understand that 'had better' is idiomatic because it goes way back in English history but if 'had' is treated like a modal verb, in this case, it should be ok to say ' I should better get going'. – Chris Jan 2 '17 at 15:46
  • Good question. It is because had better, not had by itself, acts as or like a modal. – Jim Reynolds Jan 2 '17 at 15:53
  • Interesting! I tried to ask the same question in another forum and the answer I got was ' Becuase it is'. It's quite delightful to have found an answer I can work with. Thank you :) – Chris Jan 2 '17 at 15:57
  • And I'm not sure about this, but people probably do say I should better get/be going, although it is not a standard type of utterance. It might be the kind of thing people say and most listeners might not pay particular attention to it or see it as wrong, because the meaning is clear, especially if supported by context. Though it stands out as strange or seemingly "incorrect" if it appears in writing, unless perhaps it is written as representing informal dialogue. – Jim Reynolds Jan 2 '17 at 15:59
  • Quick and simple searches on "should better be going" and "should better get going" show some matches that suggest these phrases are sometimes used, apparently by speakers of Indian English more than other varieties. Notice exactly how Snailplane phrases her comment above. She is a careful thinker with respect to linguistics and would not, I think, call it wrong or incorrect. At least some speakers of Standard English would find it odd, unusual, or unacceptable. Someone who wants to label it ungrammatical would, I believe, have difficulty supplying an evidence-based case! – Jim Reynolds Jan 2 '17 at 16:43
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Had better is an idiom and consequently it should be treated as such, that is, a fixed expression, in this particular case.

This said, although had is the past form of have, we use had better to give advice about the present or future.

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"I better get going", "I had better get going"

The phrase is commonly used when the speaker wishes to imply that they would rather stay or continue a conversation, but are unable to due to other pressures. The "get going" indicates another action that the person feels they should be undertaking. "Sorry, I had better get going if I am going to catch my train". "I better get going or my boss will yell at me".

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