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Better Watch Out

December 20, 2011

My partner says he still has nightmares about taking Cornell blue-book tests, and no doubt others have nightmares about eighth-grade grammar lessons. Parts of speech, diagramming sentences, serial commas and—egads!—the difference between semicolons and colons. Even though I’m a lifelong editor, I have my brain-fart moments with grammar, too. Bruce as SantaSomething about verbs and all those confusing phrases to describe words as tiny as is—conjugation, past perfect, auxiliaries, subjunctive moods. (Just try to parse this section of Wikipedia’s entry for English grammar!) I confess that I always have to look up the actual terms to remind myself what they mean, but I think I know how to use them pretty well. Yet there’s one construction that I’ve noticed hardly anyone uses correctly anymore.

I refer to the now common phrase “you better,” which seems to have superseded “you had better” or “you’d better.” So many modern novels, newspaper articles, marketing copy, and correspondence use this new form, that I’m sure the average native English speaker doesn’t realize “you better” is, technically, incorrect. Just take a quick look at popular culture to find the phrase everywhere. Musical artists as diverse as Justin Bieber, the Jackson 5, Alice Cooper, Mariah Carey, and Bruce Springsteen are warning children across the land that “You better watch out / You better not cry / You better not pout / I’m telling you why.”

The granddaddies of rock and roll, the Rolling Stones, got the trend started in rock and roll with “You Better Move On.” Then there’s the Who’s classic “You Better You Bet” from 1981. And Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run.”  The younger generation aren’t immune: Kei$ha has “U Better Know.” (Ungrammatical lyrics in rock music could probably keep me ranting for weeks!)

I suspect the deletion of “had” in this subjunctive verb phrase came about because explaining the phrase put all those eighth graders to sleep. Here’s how H. W. Fowler, the doyen of English usage, described the phrase:

“The word had in this phrase is not the mere auxiliary of mood or tense, but a true verb meaning find; You had better do it = You would find to-do-it better; You had better have done it = You would find to-have-done-it better. The sense is a little strained with transfer to passives, since it is in strictness the doer, and not the doing, that would find the result better; but the transition is eased by such forms as You had better have never been chosen, and it must be remembered that in the evolution of an idiom the precise force of all the words concerned is seldom present to those who are evolving it.”

Okay, so the rule is tough to explain, but honestly, it’s not hard to follow. Just use “had” with “you better.” One online resource explains it rather succinctly: use “had better” to give advice about the present or future.

I’m guessing I’m in the minority on this one, and the whole English-speaking world will decide I’m a Scrooge to complain about perfectly fine rock and roll songs, much less a beloved children’s carol, and decide to boil me in pudding and bury me with a sprig of holly through my heart.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jane E permalink
    December 20, 2011 11:20 p.12.

    My hunch is that the original usage came from overly therapized (how’s that for an example of usage?) people pleasers who’d learned not to “should” all over themselves. Hence, they began saying “you’d better” or “you ought to” to avoid the disapproval of their therapists, their spouses, and their 12-step-programmed friends.

    Another explanation is the primarily aural aspect of English acquisition that has become more and more prominent in the United States, in part because people read less and less as a past-time (so their language familiarity tends to be spoken rather than [formal] written English). In addition, more and more citizens first acquired a language other than English and/or acquired a form of English in which the code [words] are English but the grammatical constructions have their origins in other language systems (e.g. a dialect usually attributed to urban and/or southern African-Americans in which “to be” is not conjugated as in “I be watching your raggedy ass!”)

  2. December 20, 2011 11:20 p.12.

    Good point, JaneE! I hadn’t thought about that as a reason for the slackness nowadays. I’m more willing to accept your second explanation as a legitimate reason to accept the new usage than I am the laziness of native speakers.

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