I was talking with a friend of mine when she said, "I had better eat something and get some sleep." I thought she was saying it was better if she ate something earlier, but that was not what she meant.

Why is the past tense used to say something somebody is going to do? What is the difference between "I had better eat something" and "I am going to eat something"?

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    Note that many of the examples below include a consequence for not taking the action stated (e.g. BillFranke's "You'd better shut your trap if you want to live to see tomorrow"). It is very common to leave the consequence unstated, which is what is happening in the [eat and sleep] example in your question. – horatio Apr 4 '13 at 20:35

“I had better eat something” is not in past tense; it is a subjunctive modal expressing a recommendation. An englishpage.com article says the recommendation form of had better is used for future events; as in, for example, “You had better unplug the toaster before you try to clean it”, which would transform to “I had better unplug the toaster before I clean it”.

An englishgrammarsecrets.com article says:

We use “had better” plus the infinitive without “to” to give advice. Although “had” is the past form of “have”, we use “had better” to give advice about the present or future.

  • Thanks to your link from englishgrammarsecrets.com, I’m now understanding that the “to infinitive” are dropped from the verbs, i.e.”I had better [to eat] something and [to get] some sleep”. This usage is idiomatic, right? – EnglishLearner Apr 4 '13 at 20:40
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    It's the infinitive marker that is dropped, not the verb. The sentence I used as example is, "I had better eat something and get some sleep." – kiamlaluno Apr 5 '13 at 6:41
  1. Had better (as a recommendation or advice)

    You had better unplug that toaster before you clean it, else you may get a bad shock.

  2. Had better not (advice to not do something or face the consequence)

    You had better not say anything about the accident.

For all these circumstances you can also use "am going to", "should do" etc.

You shouldn't say anything.

You'd better do what I say or else you will get into trouble.

When we use "had better", it implies a definite negative effect if the advice or recommendation is not followed. In other cases, if you don't follow the advice something bad may happen, but on the other hand, something good may also happen.

However, if "had better" is used, then if you don't follow the advice something bad will definitely happen.

  • I like the way you added "should". Indeed, "I had better eat something and get some sleep" could just as easily be "I should eat something and get some sleep." In fact, I suppose "I need to eat something and get some sleep," would mean pretty much the same thing, but I think should would be the more precise rewording. – J.R. Apr 5 '13 at 10:40

"Had better" is an idiom that means "should" in this context. M-W online says this: "— had better or had best : would be wise to", as in "You'd better (= It would be wise for you to) shut your trap if you want to live to see tomorrow".

Idioms don't necessarily conform to grammar rules. Many, if not most, native Anglophones would say "I better" instead of "I'd better" and "You better" instead of "You'd better". Those solecisms are now considered idiomatic English, just the same as "He gave it to John and I". Go figure!

  • I refuse to believe that using "I" as the object is considered idiomatic.... – Hellion Apr 4 '13 at 18:32
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    I better and you better are not solecisms, but examples of elision. In rapid speech, some sounds are lost, and this is particularly so with consonant clusters, as in the consonant cluster that occurs at the end of I’d and the start of better. A writer who wants to replicate direct speech as accurately as possible must write I better if that was said. In formal prose, of course, it would occur as I had better, but the construction itself is unlikely to be much required in a formal context anyway. – Barrie England Apr 4 '13 at 18:44
  • @BarrieEngland you are saying these words in the bracket are omitted: "I had better eat something and [I had better] get some sleep. – EnglishLearner Apr 4 '13 at 20:25
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    @EnglishLearner. Well, they can be omitted in that example, but that is not what I was saying. I was saying that I had better becomes I better in rapid speech. – Barrie England Apr 4 '13 at 20:49
  • @Barrie: "Peeple gunna miss prance alottta things acurse butten they spelit rongcuse they donoat ther sayin itsa solasm", quoth Homini Lingua Crasso Auro. That's a Pullumism if ever I heard one. :-) – user264 Apr 4 '13 at 22:29

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