had better / had best


Español- Argentina
hi everybody! i'm dealing with modals i have some problems with had better and had best. what's the difference?
this is the theory i have " had better and had best are used to express advice. had best is oftent considered to be a dialectical variant of had better, but for some native speakers, had best is not used frequently in the context of warning...
  • Colonel

    Not a contradiction Grubble, just to mention "had best" is not very common here although it's sometimes used as a sterner warning than "had better."


    Senior Member
    American English
    For all you nuance-lovers and purveyors of better English:

    Remember the usage of better and best in relation to things? You pick the better of two things, but you pick the best of a group of three or more. This isn't a nuance at all; it's standard usage; I must have learned it in forth grade.

    So, I want to carry this over, so that: One had better do something if one is making a choice between two things, or between doing one thing and doing nothing (the other 'thing'). One had best do something if there are three or more options, either 'on the table,' or merely in your thoughts.

    If there are three or more options explicitly stated, I would go with had best. I would also use it if I was thinking about three or more things, whether I said them or not. But, one usually hears had better. People are usually unaware of all their options, don't want to give others more than two options, or just don't understand this nuance.

    If someone says to you, "You had best do something," you may reply, "What are the other options." If you are told, "You had better do something," the response is often, "Or what [is the other option]?"
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    Chris K

    Senior Member
    English / US
    In the US I think "had better" is much more common, although "had best" is understood and occasionally still heard. I do think it's on the way out as standard usage.


    Senior Member
    American English
    While Jim's analysis is perfectly logical, and probably correct, it is completely ignored by most native English speakers, who indiscriminately use better and best in many contexts.

    I'd better/best be leaving. (only two options)
    You'd better/best not stay. (only two options)
    You'd better/best pick the red one. (many options)

    Also, the "had" is often omitted in casual speech.

    I better/best be leaving. (only two options)
    You better/best not stay. (only two options)
    You better/best pick the red one. (many options)

    That said, I agree with Chris that "better" is much more common, and "best" sometimes has a hint of poor education to it.

    By the way, Jim, if we are being sticklers for grammar, your "I would also use it if I was thinking about three or more things" should have employed the subjunctive mood, were. Your usage is very common, though, which is another example of how native speakers ignore grammar rules.


    Senior Member
    American English
    By the way, Jim, if we are being sticklers for grammar, your "I would also use it if I was thinking about three or more things" should have employed the subjunctive mood, were. Your usage is very common, though, which is another example of how native speakers ignore grammar rules.

    So true. Oh, how I wish I had more time to be careful, to think, and to edit; whenever I do, I learn. I don't want to be taken as a sticker. My daily speech can be as sloppy as everyone else's. I usually concentrate on what people mean, or on what they are trying to say.

    Conversations just happen too fast for people to consider all these fine points. E-mails are usually equally fast. Perhaps there are some people who do it automatically. Those would be the people who write a lot, and then always revise their own writing. A good outside editor also helps (so, thank you for helping).

    If I could edit my original post I would add more reasons why people seldom follow my nuance: don't think that it's that important, are too rushed, have better things to do, etc. If I had time I could probably go on and on.

    I agree that most ignore this; that's Reality. Whether they should, ... well, that a whole can of worms that we don't need to open. I doubt it, unless they find it fun or interesting. There is just too much competition, and so little time. Nuance-lovers are rare.


    Senior Member
    British English
    I too like Jim's analysis but I wonder if there is a flaw in it.


    you're simply the best
    better than all the rest
    better than any one
    any-one i've ever met

    Simply the Best as sung by Tina Turner

    Note that we do not say "best than all the rest" despite the fact that "all the rest" probably consists of many people.

    I would argue that "I had better be leaving." comes under the same category. It could be considered as and abbreviation of "I had better be leaving than performing any of my many other possible options" whereas "I had best be leaving than..." just sounds wrong.


    Senior Member
    American English
    Semi-random thoughts:

    I think all the rest means the group that is left alter you are taken away; the universe minus her (or is it him?). It's singular, a group. And you pick the better one out of two things, her and the group without her.

    Sure, one can say I had better do this than anything from the remaining group of possibilities in the universe. But group is singular and there are two 'things."

    We don't say best than all the rest because best doesn't go with than. We also don't say most than. Don't say I had best ... than anything. These should sound wrong to you, or anyone. They are wrong.

    I think people do say, the best of all the rest, the best of the group, or the best in the group. I can't think of anything that would follow I had best ... on this model.

    I look up rest in my dictionary and it says: 1) What is left after part is taken away; remainder 2) [with plural verb] the others Used with the. So, rest is an unusual noun: One can say either The rest is gone, or The rest are gone, with both being correct, although in different contexts and with different meanings. (Note: I do have an American dictionary, your use may vary.)

    I claim that you won't be able to find a flaw. This is because it is only a suggestion for better English usage. It's not descriptive grammar, so you can't compare it to usage. I'm not being prescriptive, so you can't call me a moron. It doesn't even have an internal logic that could be flawed. I'm only taking what I learned in fourth grade about one usage of better/best and suggesting that it could be extended to had better/had best.

    The question is what would you put in the blank. Three options are too way many for me; I had _____ do the first one.

    You must have already said sentences like this, so, you have made this choice before. What do you do now? Perhaps you go with my suggestion, perhaps you always use better, perhaps you go with Colonel who suggested that best is a sterner form of better, or perhaps you choose some other way.
    My guess is that you've gone with had better. It's a good guess because you wrote "I have never heard anyone say it [had best] in modern day Britain." In the future, who knows.

    As always, I welcome your thoughts. It's been fun, stimulating, and interesting.


    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    "Had better" works everywhere "had best" does and is more mainstream. So if you as a non-native are wondering which one to use when, just stick with "had better."
    The comparative/superlative issue is irrelevant to these expressions, by the way.


    New Member
    Okay, first of all, Jim's argument is a logical one. Almost everything we say or do follows a logical process.

    Secondly, [I suggest that you can't find a flaw because this is a suggestion, not a rule], is basically what Jim said. I'm clearly paraphrasing. But, are you suggesting that you cannot find logical flaws in suggestions? That's preposterous. Almost everything we say is an argument, and almost every argument can be challenged.

    Third, while I appreciate your attempt, I think the suggestion is still wrong. I could say, "Wow, Timmy! You're better than Rick, Jack, and Tammy." Similarly, you can say, "That's the best rose (of only two roses)." I believe the use of better and best have more to do with the quality or intensity if the thing. Which also seems to explain why "had best" seems more threatening; it carries more weight.