Why do we say ‘had better’?
Reader’s question: I don’t understand the grammar behind the expression ‘He’d better clean up his room’ or ‘She’d better ring me before tomorrow’.
I am told it stands for:
He had better clean up his room.
She had better ring me before tomorrow.
But how can we use the present tense together with had? Or is this just colloquial?
Answer: I can’t work out any rational reason for this so I assume it is an idiomatic expression. And, you are right, it is often abbreviated (he’d better).
It acts like a modal verb (should, could), so we use had better plus the bare infinitive to give strong advice about the present or future.
When had is used to refer to present and future events, it is sometimes called the unreal past.
Had better is often more threatening in tone than should or ought to. Compare:
He’d better be on time.
He should be on time.
He ought to be on time.
Register for my online course, Grammar, Punctuation and Usage, to learn more about grammar.