Should vs. had better

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What is the difference between "should" and "had better"? Consider these sentences for example:

  • It's cold outside. You should wear a coat.
  • It's cold outside. You'd better wear a coat.

What are the differences in meaning? How can one decide which one to use? What pitfalls are there?

Scott Severance

Posted 2013-01-24T00:39:54.783

Reputation: 1 668

For all I knew about the “'d better” construction, I'd never have thought a had hid behind it. Ain't it a “would”, or a “should” maybe ? – Nikana Reklawyks – 2013-01-24T03:51:58.470

2@NikanaReklawyks: It's definitely "had," although it might be possible that in some literary or older usages I can imagine "should." – Scott Severance – 2013-01-24T05:57:49.870

@kenb, I'd say you're not completely correct about that. :-) – Hellion – 2013-04-03T17:46:28.643

@Hellion What else can you think of? – Ken Bellows – 2013-04-03T18:13:12.520

@kenb, any case where the 'd is followed by a form of 'to have' or 'to be'... I'd have thought or She'd be about, for example. – Hellion – 2013-04-03T18:40:34.143

@Hellion You make a good point. – Ken Bellows – 2013-04-03T18:46:41.803

2In my experience (as a native US English speaker), the 'd contraction is pretty universally expanded to had. "I'd", "she'd", "he'd", "it'd", "they'd", "we'd", they all expand to "<subject> had". – Ken Bellows – 2013-01-28T17:59:37.053

Answers

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The primary difference between the two is in the implication of the result.

"You should" carries the connotation that if you do as suggested, the outcome will be favorable; it puts the focus of the statement on a positive consequence. You could say that it is an encouragement to engage in good behavior.

"You'd better", on the other hand, carries the connotation that if you fail to do as suggested, the outcome will be unfavorable; it puts the focus on the negative consequence. You could say that it is a warning about engaging in bad behavior.

If the phrases were extended, you would almost always see something along the lines of

You should wear a coat, so you can stay warm

vs.

You'd better wear a coat, so you don't get frostbite.

Hellion

Posted 2013-01-24T00:39:54.783

Reputation: 18 009

Can "had better" sound impolite? For example, I'm travelling with a VP of our company, and at the airport I say to him, "You'd better let me carry your suitcase." My intention is to help him. Will it sound impolite? – mangoyogurt – 2015-03-26T16:52:58.090

Since that phrasing carries a connotation of unpleasant consequences it he doesn't let you carry it, it would definitely sound wrong, possibly insulting (the implication being that he is not capable of carrying his own suitcase properly). I'd recommend a simple offer like "I can get that for you" or a request like "Please let me carry that for you." – Hellion – 2015-03-26T16:59:54.707