Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

I DO not want to be unkind to Mr Blair, but when he was being nice and human, post-Euan, on Newsnight, he was reminded of a previous undertaking and said that Labour had better keep to it, bette n't we?' He did not invent this weird construction: I have often heard it in southern England. But it is a tangled one to get straight.

The phrase had better acts as what the grammarians call a modal or a semiauxiliary. In other words it can have the same meaning as should. You had better accompany me to the station is much the same as You should better accompany me to the station.

The negative interrogative of you should is shouldn't you? On this analogy you'd better becomes bette'n't you. I am not saying this is correct. (The ordinary negative interrogative tag with you had better is hadn't you?) But I think that is how people's internal faculty of language comes up with bette'n't. Anyway, it is no worse than many a previous step in the long history of the phrase had better. …

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