Exercice du Style:
Had better!


The following bit of pidgin appeared in an editorial in Tuesday’s Times:

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, better urge his recalcitrants to get over it and start delivering that Washington Change they proclaim so loudly on the hustings.

There is, in English, an idiomatic expression, “to have better/best X,” meaning, “to have a possibly unacknowledged duty or responsibility,” where X is the verb describing the prescribed action.

You’d better get out of here!

He had best do his homework before dinner.

In vernacular speech, the auxiliary part of this expression is sometimes omitted.

I better get my ass in gear.

Pidgin is the minimal version of a language that can still be understood by others. It is pardonable in speakers in a language that is not their first. It is barbarous on the editorial page of The New York Times.

It will be tiresomely argued that everybody knows what the sentence means. This is not true. The New York Times is read by many foreigners — let’s at least hope that it is! — and while many of them doubtless have fluent reading comprehension of English, some undoubtedly do not. A struggling reader might well seize on “urge” as the verb in the sentence’s first clause. This makes some sense, but not very much, and such a reader could be forgiven for doubting his or her own comprehension.

It is also true that attentive readers of English will trip on the omission of “had.” There is no reason in the world for any reader to be obliged to pause over this sloppiness.

The only readers who won’t be inconvenienced by this solecism are the one’s who matter least: those who don’t read the Times.

English is endowed with loads of idiomatic expressions that mix verbs with other parts of speech. They must  be used, if not sparingly, then with great care. And they must always be used properly and in full.

One Response to “Exercice du Style:
Had better!”

  1. Muhammad says:

    warren -you seem like a cool, honest guy 10 % truly atiaulcze themselves into spanish speakers!! No hype about 90% becoming fluent in only 30 days!!! And as important non judgemental most of my students are satisfied learning to get by in spanish and that is their choice. How refreshing.I am a child of the 60 s (dob 1942) opted out of the rat race 6-8 years ago and became interested in spanish though not certain why. Have worked on/with it for years with some success and some frustration. Probably a level 2 per your criteria.Recently made my 2nd driving visit into Mexico (Nogales to Hermosillo to Chihuahua via hwy 16 through the Sierra Madres) -ended up in Zacatecas. On this visit became very, very aware of the incredible importance of the spoken word. I was physically there but not really able to connect with people. What a great torture device place someone in a foreign land and not allow them to communicate!!I have done mostly self study in my quest of the spanish language. The so called immersion classes taught by native spanish speakers have been a disappointment to me. Your approach/method and genuine concern esp for the older student are appealing. Perhaps I will have the opportunity of meeting you as a student in the future.Regards,Dave Ostrander