Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, what’s Bruce Springsteen got to do with it? Find out…
Q: Hi AWC, we recently heard from a reader named Cathy. Now, I better get to her question (and I’d better not get it wrong) – it’s about whether it should be “I better do something” or “I’d better do something”.
A: Well, either way, you’re definitely doing something.
A: It’s actually a great question, because we do see both a lot. And it’s quite intriguing to learn that neither party occupies the high ground in this matter.
Q: I went to a birthday party at one of those indoor playlands once. There was ours and another party happening at the same time, so they put us up in their upstairs party room. I suppose our party occupied the high ground in that instance.
A: We’re going to ignore that entire story.
Q: That’s wise.
A: So as we were saying, right back into the early 1800s, people were publishing texts that had “I better” or “you better” in them – and indeed, many thought of this as rather colloquial.
Q: Yes it seems to be missing something.
A: However, some also viewed the idiomatic pairing of “I’d better” or “you’d better” as equally troubling. Teachers of the day claimed it was “very difficult to dispose of grammatically.”
Q: I think my washing machine is an idiomatic…
A: Of course, idioms aren’t really meant to make sense – they’re just widely understood. So, as things have evolved, the formal usage tends to follow that idiom – the shortening of “I had better” or “you had better” as in “I’d better see what that noise is” and “yes, you’d better do that”.
Q: What was the noise?
A: There was no noise. It was just an examp– Okay, fine. It was a door slamming in the wind. Happy?
Q: Happy. Okay, so using “I better” and “you better” is more casual, but still not completely wrong?
A: That’s right. It has worked its way into everyday usage, such that it is widely understood to mean the same thing. And yes, in informal writing or even dialogue in a story, this would make sense to use.
Q: Are you sure?
A: Music lyrics are the best way to illustrate this. Bruce Springsteen’s version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town includes “You better watch out! You better not cry. You better not pout. I’m telling you why”. It just works better like that and no one has trouble with that.
Q: Fair enough. So “I’d better” is more formal, but “I better” has its place.
A: That’s it.
Q: Okay, I’d better get going. I have another birthday party to attend. Have to allow extra time in case it’s upstairs. English sure is a strange and mysterious language.
A: You better believe it!