You Better vs. You Had Better Read This!

Santa - can you trust this guy to know grammar?Lyrics from Pat Benetar’s “You Better Run” prompted a reader query. “Almost every time I see or hear ‘You better …’ I think it should be ‘You had better …’ But then I immediately think that probably isn’t correct, either.”

These classic holiday lyrics prompt the same dilemma:

You better watch out, you better not cry,
You better not pout, I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town.

What’s wrong with the lyrics in both songs?

When you are suggesting that someone should or ought to do something, the correct was to say it is had better, which we often express as a contraction:

You had better get to the meeting on time.
You’d better get to the meeting on time.

Had better implies that something bad could happen if you don’t follow the advice:

We should leave before the storm hits.
We’d better leave before the storm hits.

You should finish mowing the lawn before you go to the ballgame.
You’d better finish mowing the lawn before you go to the ballgame.

If you’re not sure how many will show up, you should bring extra food.
If you’re not sure how many will show up, you’d better bring extra food.

Songwriters often take liberties with grammar. Adele’s lyrics from her smash hit “Hello” depart from accepted grammar guidelines:

But I ain’t done much healing …
But it don’t matter …

So do Mick Jagger’s lyrics in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

We tend to cut lyricists some slack, but cutting grammatical corners in everyday use — especially at work — is different.

I usually recommend mastering preferred grammar by training your ear (and eye) to discern today’s standard usage; it’s easier than memorizing rules!

Although listening to Pat Benetar, Adele or Mick Jagger could lead you astray, the Ruthless Editor follower who posed the question recognized that something didn’t sound right with you better, and he was spot-on.

Do you hear words used in questionable ways? You’d better let me know so I can check with my favorite sources and share the consensus of opinion about what works best in today’s world.

Kathy Watson
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Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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2 thoughts on “You Better vs. You Had Better Read This!

  1. morst

    The Who has a song titled “You Better You Bet.”

    Or had we better say that The Who HAVE a song with that title?!?

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