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While commuting to work, I encountered a bumper sticker that said

"I had rather be on/Cape Point Fishing".

I found this curious, since I always thought that the correct expression would be "I would rather be...", instead of "I had rather be".

Is there a joke I'm not getting, or was this bumper sticker just incorrect?

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I think it's more typical in UK usage than US. And we almost always say "I'd rather be" (which could arguably mean either one) unless we're being very formal. –  Greg Hullender Sep 24 '13 at 16:10
One of the benefits of contractions is that they obscure difficult distinctions; for this reason alone, it's a good idea always to use contractions in writing whenever you would contract in speech. –  John Lawler Sep 24 '13 at 16:34

1 Answer 1

The OED describes had rather as the past subjunctive, meaning ‘would have’, and used idiomatically with adjectives (or adverbs) in the comparative, ‘to express preference or comparative desirability’.

Not all grammarians would now agree with the description ‘past subjunctive’ but the had rather construction is still found in British English. The British National Corpus yields 21 examples, but some are false positives. The Corpus of Contemporary American English has 23 records, but, as it is four and a half times bigger than the BNC, the incidence is relatively smaller.

It is no doubt true that the difference is often fudged by the contraction, as when Simon and Garfunkel sang in ‘El Condor Paso’:

I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail

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I do not have access to the OED’s examples right now, but it would seem to me that ‘had rather’ (like its definition, ‘would have’) should be used with the past participle, not the infinitive. “I'd rather been a sparrow” = I had rather been; but “I'd rather be a sparrow” = I would rather be a sparrow. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 24 '13 at 21:36
The OED has this citation using the infinitive from around 1533 which matches the S and G line: ‘I had rather to bee Cato.’ But if I had to guess the full form of the lyric in the light of contemporary usage, I, too, would have to say ‘I would . . .’ –  Barrie England Sep 25 '13 at 6:35
The OED quote also has ‘to’, which makes it more of a special meaning of ‘have to be’ than ‘would be’. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 25 '13 at 7:02
You mean it may contain an element of compulsion? Perhaps. It isn’t clear from the context. On the other hand, the inclusion of to may simply be a feature of the language of the time, where we would omit it now. –  Barrie England Sep 25 '13 at 7:08
‘Not necessarily that it contains an element of compulsion; rather that it represents a use/meaning of the construction ‘have to [inf.]’ that is not found anymore. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 25 '13 at 12:20

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