I had much rather we not stay. (Random House)
I'd rather you didn't go out alone. (Longman)

If the first sentence is possible, I guess, the second one can be re-write as “I’d rather you not go out alone." Is this really possible?


Yes, that rewrite is perfectly acceptable. It is however ‘rather’ (in the ‘somewhat’ sense) an old-fashioned way of expressing it.

Expressions with rather are quite complicated, because they are really ‘fossils’ from earlier states of the language. Some of the issues involved are:

  • The had in your first example is the full verb, not an auxiliary. Grammatically it is a rare instance of the past form representing contingency or unreality outside a conditional construction. Today we express this grammatically almost exclusively as would have; but well into the 18th century the form (which it is hard not to call ‘subjunctive’) sometimes represented the sense ‘to desire or wish [someone to do something]’ (I had rather that ye never maryed in yowyr lyffe - 1478) and at other times the sense ‘to experience or suffer’ (He had better been drowned - 1665).

  • The ’d in your second example would be understood by most speakers as a contraction not of had but of would, which since the middle of the 18th century has been far more usual than had with rather:

    enter image description here

    That would, again, represents what is now a fairly rare use: although its past form does as usual express the ‘subjunctive’ sense of contingency or unreality, the base sense is volitive, wish or want. (Would that it were so!)

  • The verb forms in the complement are also archaic in the cases which employ what you call the ‘root-verb’. I suspect you are being very diplomatic and carefully avoiding calling it either an ‘infinitive’ or a ‘subjunctive’; if you are not, you should be, because sometimes it is definitely an infinitive and at other times it may be called either infinitive or subjunctive.

    • Without a pronoun, expressing what the subject would rather do, it is definitely an unmarked infinitive, the final verb in the verbal chain of the main clause, not a component of a subordinate clause; this is possible only with the would version, which is grammatically an ordinary modal:

      He would rather be dead. derived from He would be dead [=He wants to be dead] derived from He will be dead.

    • But with a pronoun, expressing either what the subject would rather do himself or what he would rather someone else do, the verb is a component of a subordinate that-clause. Grammarians differ over whether this should be called an infinitive or a mandative subjunctive:

      I had/would rather [that] you be dead than that you marry her.

    • In any case, the version with the past form—“I would rather you were dead”—has been preferred at least since the early 19th century:

    enter image description here

    • That version of course, must be inverted in a negative, and needs DO-support if the tensed verb is not BE or an auxiliary:

      I would rather you did not marry her.

So the more frequent use would be that with the past form and *DO-support: “I'd rather you didn't go out alone. “

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  • In fact, I used 'subjuctive,' in WR, but was declined. Now, I'm out all through the vague tunnel. – Listenever Apr 21 '13 at 0:10

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