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You’d better bloody well tell them you’ll need to discuss it with me first.
(The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling)

Whenever I saw a bare-infinitive follow close behind ‘had better,’ I thought ‘had better’-plus-verb is a loaf of meaning bread. But as you see, there’s a ‘bloody well’ intervention. This gives me this impression that the construction might be a combination of a matrix and a conditional clause - I mean two meaning-sub-breads. That is, ‘You had (in here, there might be an insinuation of ‘a treat, a situation, etc.’) better bloody well, (if you would) tell them you’ll need to discuss it with me first. As a to-infinitve can deliver a conditional meaning as in: People might take you for a girl, to hear you sing.
It’s hard to believe there could be any account for this in any grammar books. But do you perchance read the way I said?

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    I love your loaf-of-meaning-bread metaphor; but slice would be better than sub-bread to carry it forward. – StoneyB on hiatus Nov 9 '14 at 13:38
  • @StoneyB It’s a domino of chaos, I would say. When I was an elementary student at five form, it was an Korean class when my form teacher put a task composing a poem. I don’ remember what my verses were, except a word that described the sound of whistle. It was ‘whiririri, whiririri.’ I didn’t intended to describe it the way. I just didn’t know what the sound sounded like. My not-knowing dragged the ‘whiririri’ sound out. However the teacher complimented me and I was ashamed for my guilty sense. – Listenever Nov 9 '14 at 23:27
  • @StoneyB Likewise, I didn’t know what word is for my ‘loaf.’ Once I got the word, loaf, this led to ‘bread,’ then forced to ‘sub-bred.’ Not that I didn't think about the word, slice, but it gave me the image of thin, than a half of a chunk. So it’s a domino of chaos. Thank you very much for your correction, sir. – Listenever Nov 9 '14 at 23:34
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It's an ingenious idea, and it has some historical support. When the idiom first arose (see OED 1,4,b), what is now the subject was a dative and the sense was It would be better for you, and you could certainly understand that as:

It would be better for you if you bloody well told them ...

But I don't think it works. I think you have to understand what follows better not as an adjunct but as a complement acting as an NP. Historically, in fact, it was the subject, expressed as a content clause with that:

Him wære betere Þæt he næfre ȝeboren nære ... = Him were better that he never born wasn’t = That he had never been born would be better for him.

Although the front end of the expression has changed drastically, I think that complement sense of the back end survives:

Tell them you’ll need to discuss it with me first is what you'd better bloody well do.

Let me offer you an alternate far-fetched analysis: ’d·better has become an ordinary modal verb, taking a bare infinitive (with its arguments) as its complement:

You’d better bloody well tell them ...
You should  bloody well tell them ...

This analysis may be a little more plausible in US speech, where the ’d at the beginning has practically disappeared:

You better f*****g tell them ..

| improve this answer | |
  • Where is that fine example "Him wære betere ..." from? – rogermue Nov 9 '14 at 16:47
  • @rogermue It is given in OED 1 at the link above as the Blickling Homilies in the 1880 edn from the EETS. The date given is 971; Wikipedia says 'before the end of the tenth century'. – StoneyB on hiatus Nov 9 '14 at 16:55
  • Here's one from circa 1430: It hadde betre be to hem to nevere have resceyved Cristendom. quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/… – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 9 '14 at 19:49
  • @TRomano Yes, that's another direction the idiom took, with a cleft and a to infinitive, which we would probably express today with a for..to construction. The if construction OP conjectures is another version; in fact, that's the way the Biblical passage has usually been translated since EME. – StoneyB on hiatus Nov 9 '14 at 22:10
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    In formal BrE down to about 1950 shall replaces will in the first person, so should = would, probably dynamic. – StoneyB on hiatus Nov 10 '14 at 12:53
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To answer the question in the title, yes, in {you had better + bare infinitive} there is an insinuation that to do|not to do something will have (hmmmm... let's say unpleasant) consequences.

Cf. Harry Truman, 1951.

P.S. In the most neutral terms, "you'd better" is a prediction. There need be no malice or insinuation of harm, only a choice between two outcomes, one of them the less desirable.

It would be better for you to....

Your eyelids are drooping. You'd better go to bed! (i.e. or you may fall asleep as we're talking, which might be an embarrassment for you.

vs.

You'd better not come back to this pool-hall! (i.e. or next time, we may do worse things than break your thumbs).

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It is known that older formulas had the form as in the example given by StoneyB: Him wære betere ...". But I have never read an explanation how the illogical construction "You had* better do A" came into being ( had* means past subjunctive, A stands for anything you might add).

Once I suggested on another forum the hypothesis that had* may have been did*: "You did* better go home now" - such a structure would have some logic. Probably this did* was shortened to 'd and then taken for had.

A hypothesis of mine, but I couldn't convince anybody, though one member said: Interesting theory.

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  • The OED link in my answer follows 'F.Hall' in attributing this to analogy with had rather, liefer; my footnote to this answer provides a link to the article by F. Hall. – StoneyB on hiatus Nov 10 '14 at 12:57

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