Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In colloquial English, I constantly run across sentences of the form:

I rather my [noun] [verb]

A quick Google search returns tons of examples:

  • I rather my opponents don't find out.
  • I rather my fans not read this.
  • I rather my teeth froze than hurt.
  • I rather my smile with the braces on.
  • I rather my kids smoke pot than drink alcohol.

Looks like "rather" is on its way to becoming a verb, a synonym of "to prefer". When did that start? Obviously there are several steps to this process, from "I'd rather do X" via "I'd rather X" to "I rather X". But none of the dictionaries I have checked, from Hornby to Merriam-Webster to Cambridge to Wiktionary, seem to have picked up this usage just yet. So how recent is this phenomenon?

share|improve this question
2  
+1 this is a great question, this never occurred to me –  Edward Tanguay Aug 13 '10 at 9:35
2  
Good question. I rather suspect the answer is no, though it's common enough in colloquial speech. –  Noldorin Aug 13 '10 at 9:41
4  
English is full of homophones which are different parts of speech. The fact that there is a verb that sounds like "rather" and an adverb that sounds like "rather" has nothing to do with whether either is correct. –  Alan Hogue Aug 13 '10 at 18:13
3  
@Alan: my point is precisely that there is no verb that sounds like "rather"; there is not a single dictionary that lists "rather" as a verb. I thought my question was pretty clear in that regard. –  RegDwigнt Aug 14 '10 at 15:43
3  
+1 I rather like this question. –  David Schwartz Feb 17 '12 at 11:57

9 Answers 9

I'm a multilingual person from the Netherlands. I think the use of 'rather' as a verb is common in Britain. I certainly have heard the expression: "I rather you don't". I always thought that the word 'rather' was used like 'wish' but today I changed my mind.

Speaking 5 European languages has taught me that etymology is the basis for most meanings of words and that going back usually teaches you why a certain word is used in a particular context. This morning I decided to find the overall meaning of 'rather' (and that's how I found this page).

One of the explanations of the meaning of 'rather' is something like 'with ratio'. It means something like 'with thought' or 'after (some/any) thought' or 'I conclude'. Note that this meaning can be substituted for the word 'rather'.

It's a rather obvious thing. > If you think about it it is obvious.

I would rather have the green one. > After some thought I have the green one.

I rather you be there. > I have reasoned you (should) be there. (since you reasoned it you have made the best possible choice and that explains the urging undertones of this sentence).

I'd rather you be there. > (If you ask me,) I would reason that you (should) be there.

Note that British people often use 'rather' in a deliberate and slightly snobbish fashion. This can be linked to education in ye old days. If you can reason you had an education. If you had an education you had money or was in some other way an important person.

To me it seems perfectly clear that 'rather' has originally been used as a verb for reasoning. What often happens is that the original meaning gets obscured and a word becomes overspecialized as a particular grammatical construct(s).

Think of these two sentences:

I'd rather be at home.

I'd rather you (would) be at home.

Note that there is a missing 'I' in the first sentence. Note also that both sentences have a missing 'that'.

The fully written out sentences would be:

I would rather that I would be at home.

I would rather that you would be at home.

Et voila! 'rather' has become a verb! 'would' can be removed as it only signifies a condition, in this case the condition of having thought about it.

It's similar to the use of 'would' in: "I would say..." (If you asked me, I would say). It's a meta position that came from reasoning (you reason about yourself) and can be left out. Which makes 'rather' the verb.

share|improve this answer
    
The second would be in your expanded examples is ungrammatical; it should be were in each case. I would can in certain rare cases be a main verb on its own ('I would it were evening, and all well', Henry V), in which case in can take rather as an adverb. –  TimLymington Jun 9 '12 at 13:01
    
This is wrong. Rather is never a verb. Please consult the OED. –  tchrist Jun 9 '12 at 16:49
1  
I wonder if you're mishearing "I'd rather..." as "I rather...", or if you're confusing e.g. "I rather think that..." with "I'd rather think that..." (which superficially look similar but are different structures). –  Neil Coffey Jun 10 '12 at 2:35
    
@tchrist - I agree this isn't conclusive evidence that "rather" is a verb. But I don't think "because the OED says so" is a terribly convincing or scientifically rigorous argument either. Dictionaries generally give very traditional-- and sometimes quite questionable-- lexical categorisations. It's quite possible that their categorisation is inadequate. (On the other hand, you do need to make the case either way. I'm not sure this answer quite does so.) –  Neil Coffey Jun 10 '12 at 2:38
    
@NeilCoffey Yes, I understand that. I just find the OED’s explanation in its subsenses under sense 8 of rather in “would rather” being an adverb to be pretty thoroughly convincing, just as away must also be an adverb in “must away”. If there were evidence that rather is a verb, I’d expect to see inflexions like *rathers, *rathered, *rathering, which I have never seen nor heard. If actual evidence to that effect is presented, I’d be glad to reconsider. Same with away in “must away”. Elliptical constructs like these may become verbs with time, but I don’t yet see evidence of such. –  tchrist Jun 10 '12 at 4:33

Edit: A situation similar to that of “would rather” arises with “must away” in things like:

Farewell we call to hearth and hall!
Though wind may blow and rain may fall,
We must away ere break of day
Far over wood and mountain tall.

Just because “must away” seems to lack a verb immediately following the must does not make away function as a verb there. The actual verb is omitted, elliptically. That’s the same thing as is going on with “would rather”.  Away is still an adverb just as rather is still an adverb. Both constructs are a bit elliptical is all.


This is all covered under the OED’s sense 8 of rather, adv.. Full citations provided for senses 8e and 8f below:

⁠8. Sooner (as a matter of choice); more readily or willingly; with greater liking or goodwill; in preference.

  • a. Used to express choice between two courses of action, or preference for one outcome or event over another. Freq. with would.

    In sentences of this type rather is placed either before the verb or clause expressing the action or event preferred, or immediately before than. For the use of to after than, see than conj. 1a.

  • b. Used to express choice between two things, people, qualities, conditions, etc. Also †no rather, †more rather.

  • c. Without than, in contrast to a preceding (sometimes implied) assertion. Used to indicate an alternative course of action, state of affairs, etc. Also the rather (rare), but rather.

  • d. had rather: would rather; (see have v. 21c). †Hence to have rather (rare): to choose or prefer‥rather.

    The infinitive after had or have is sometimes preceded by to.

  • e. would rather: would rather have or choose.

    • 1557    T. North tr. A. de Guevara Diall Princes 96,   I woulde rather one onely day of lyfe then all the ryches of Roome.
    • 1630    Bp. J. Hall Occas. Medit. §xlix,   I would rather never to haue light, then not to haue it alwayes.
    • 1675    R. Burthogge Cavsa Dei 99   The Parent‥who would rather than the better part of his estate‥he could reclaim and turn him.
    • a1727    W. Pattison Poet. Wks. (1728) II. 35   O! could I hide the Wish I fear to name! Would rather kinder Fortune guide my Flame!
    • 1792    F. Reynolds Notoriety ɪɪ. 24,   I would rather he'd have can'd me than nobody.
    • 1850    Punch 18 197/2,   I would rather a good dinner than a bad one.
    • 1862    Mrs. H. Wood Channings II. xvii. 262,   I would rather a nurse broke one of my children's limbs, than thus poisoned its fair young mind.
    • 1939    P. Gallagher My Story 54,   I would rather her stories than my father's.
    • 1998    M. J. Lanning Delivering Profitable Value ii. 52   Some smokers would rather a cigarette associated with a tough, masculine, independent cowboy who lives with his horse, riding through the rain in the desert.
  • f. In contracted form, I'd (also you'd, etc.) rather: I (you, etc.) would rather.

    In this form of the phrase, would and had are morphologically and semantically indistinguishable as the intended verb.

    • 1601    R. Yarington Two Lamentable Trag. sig. C2v,   Ide rather choose to feede on carefulnesse‥Then condiscend to offer violence.
    • 1620    I. C. Two Merry Milke-maids ɪᴠ. i. sig. K3v,   I'd rather you wud let it alone, vnlesse you had a finer handkercher.
    • 1685    H. Bold & W. Bold tr. in Latine Songs xix. 66   I'd rather both your eyes were out.
    • 1710    Don Francisco Sutorioso 17   [He] swore, She was so ugly, He'd rather with the Devil's Pug lye.
    • 1740    S. Richardson Pamela I. 158   Can'st thou not stab me to the Heart? I'd rather thou wouldst, than say such another Word!
    • 1796    F. Burney Camilla IV. ᴠɪɪɪ. x. 376   She thinks so well of my son, that I'd rather he'd have her than an empress.
    • 1825    J. K. Paulding John Bull in Amer. xᴠ. 263   I'd rather a man would cut off my head at once, than spit in my face.
    • 1855    E. C. Gaskell North & South II. iii. 32   I'd rather think yo' a fool than a knave. No offence, I hope, sir.
    • 1876    F. H. Moore Mistress Haselwode II. v. 88   I'd rather a steady fire; these quick flames do burn them out by sheer fury.
    • 1935    H. Heslop Last Cage Down ɪ. v. 51   We'd rather you settled amicably, if that's what you mean.
    • 1970    A. J. P. Taylor Let. 2 Nov. in Lett. to Eva (1991) 19   I'd rather sit down over a good meal than go to the theatre.
    • 2002    N. Roberts Face Fire xviii. 313   I'd rather a storm than rain. We haven't had enough storms this summer.
  • g. rather you (also him, her, etc.) than me (and variants): ‘I'm glad it's you (him, her, etc.) and not me’ (used to express relief at not being in the situation of the person referred to). Cf. soon adv. 10b.

The correct citation for the entry is:

rather, adv.

Third edition, December 2008; online version December 2011. < http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/158456 >; accessed 17 February 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1903.

share|improve this answer
    
The "must away/must to England" construction was very common two or three centuries ago, but seems to have fallen almost completely out of use. Maybe a more contemporary parallel is "got". Americans often leave off the "'ve" in "I've got to do something," resulting in "I got to ...". Little children often interpret this to mean that "got" is a verb and say "he gots to ...", but I have never heard an adult do this. –  Peter Shor Jun 1 '13 at 0:19

I was wondering the exact same thing, as I seemed to remember having been taught "rather" as an adverb in school, too. The increased occurrences of "rather" being used as verb brought me to this Wiktionary entry (yeah, blame me for not having checked English.SE first):

rather (third-person singular simple present rathers, present participle rathering, simple 
past and past participle rathered)
(nonstandard or dialectal) To prefer; to prefer to. 

So according to this (and the according quotations) it seems to be possible to be used as a verb on its on, albeit nonstandard.

share|improve this answer
2  
This is just the sort of nonsense you get with uncurated crowd-sourcing: nothing your citation claims to be true is even vaguely correct. See the proper OED entry posted elsewhere in this answer. It is not a verb. It is not nonstandard or dialectal. And there is no form *rathers, either. Again, see the Real Dictionary for a Real Answer. –  tchrist Feb 17 '12 at 13:33

Let's be clear: "rather" is not a verb nor should it be used as such in formal English. The correct word is "prefer."
I don't know why so many are confused on this question in a forum like this. (The origins of this error are from the formulation "I would rather have".)

share|improve this answer
1  
This is not a forum. –  simchona Sep 14 '11 at 14:34
2  
This 'answer' is mistaken on many levels. As simchona says, this is a Q&A site (where evidence is required) rather than just another forum (where "I disagree" is valid). "I'd rather" is not an synonym of "I prefer". The formulation in Shakespeare and others is "I had rather": "I would rather have" is grammatical, but not the usage under discussion. And actual usage clearly has progressed from "I had/would rather" to "I'd rather" to "I rather". –  TimLymington Sep 14 '11 at 15:16
    
To add to @Tim's point, this Q&A site is also not about "formal English" as such. It is, rather, descriptive over prescriptive in many cases. –  simchona Sep 14 '11 at 16:19
    
@TimLymington Surely you know no one who *rathers anything. It is not a verb, as that shows. –  tchrist Jun 9 '12 at 16:52
1  
@TimLymington My point is that I have not seen any inflexional evidence that rather is on its way to being a verb, whether that’s as a productive, defective, or modal verb. Do you know of any? And the non-inflected instances seem wholly accounted for by the various subsenses under the OED’s sense 8 of rather adv. If you show me evidence of rather as a verb, then I’ll of course believe you; I just don’t feel I’ve seen any yet, that’s all. All examples so far provided fit comfortably within the OED’s adverbial citations. –  tchrist Jun 9 '12 at 20:28

In this case, I think "would" is being used as the subjunctive of "will," "will" meaning to desire. So in the case you describe, it means something akin to "wish." I admit it sounds archaic, but I'm pretty sure it's okay. I know Shakespeare uses "I would it were..." often enough. And as you set out in the question, we still use it today.

The first two sentences, as written, don't make sense. "Rather" is not a verb. I've never heard it used like one, either. I'm guessing if you've heard that it was a mistake, and they meant to say/ type "I'd rather..."

So, as far as I know "I rather my opponents don't find out" doesn't make sense. "I'd rather my opponents don't find out" does. You can insert a verb into most of the sentences if using "would" as the subjunctive of will bothers you, but it's not necessary.

share|improve this answer
2  
If the verb is "would", isn't "rather" supposed to be in front of it? "I rather would my son was a rock star" –  Martin Aug 15 '10 at 22:25
    
That's not a rule I've ever heard of...Adverbs can go before or after the verb they modify. For example: "I preferably ran for 4 miles before returning," and "I ran preferably for 4 miles before returning" both make perfect sense. Sometimes it sounds better in one position than the other, but beyond that, I don't think it matters. –  kitukwfyer Aug 16 '10 at 1:03
4  
@kitukwfyer: he is not talking about adverbs in general, he is talking about a particular adverb. "Rather" behaves differently from "preferably". Besides, your explanation is too far-fetched. I seriously doubt that people who say "I'd rather my son was a rock star" use the "'d" as the subjunctive of "will". Heck, from my experience, they usually have no idea what subjunctive is to begin with. They just think that "rather" means "to prefer". Note all the cases in which there is no verb at all: "I rather my fans not read this." Your explanation fails then at the latest. –  RegDwigнt Aug 16 '10 at 8:03
1  
I'm sorry I misunderstood, then. My point was that "I rather would..." sounds awkward, but beyond that I don't think there's anything wrong with it...Also, just for the record, even though people don't know what the subjunctive is, that doesn't mean they don't use it. I think "I would rather my son were a rock star" is an example of this, just like "so be it"...I did fail to address the "I rather..." sentences. I've honestly never heard it and don't think it registered when I first read the question. Thanks for that. I'll edit when I get the chance. –  kitukwfyer Aug 16 '10 at 16:01
3  
I agree with this answer. It is most likely that I’d rather has evolved from what historically was the subjunctive of will. It doesn’t matter that modern speakers are unaware of this development. I find the I rather... sentences to be wrong. –  Timwi Jan 20 '11 at 17:55

"Rather" here is functioning as an adverb. I don't understand those who say that there is no verb. This is a classic example of a fossilized, fixed expression, of which English (and most languages) have many.

As kitukwyfer stated, "would" here is the subjunctive of "will" in its older sense of "want", and the word order dates from a time when English, like German, had a stronger preference for verb-second word order, in which the finite verb is always the second phrasal element of a clause. (This can still be found in other fossilized expressions like "so do I" in which the word "I" is shifted to the end because the verb must occupy the second position.)

To sum up, every one of these expressions has not one, but two verbs. In this fixed expression, the so-called auxiliary is not really functioning as an auxiliary. It is the main verb, the subjunctive of its older meaning of "want," modified by the adverb "rather".

share|improve this answer

In all but your first two examples, there is a verb - it's the contracted would in I'd. So the rather is modifying that would, which is used as the subjunctive of 'will' in the sense of 'want'.

share|improve this answer
2  
But "would" is clearly an auxiliary verb here. The actual verb (would do what?) is obviously omitted. "I would my wife made mines" makes zero sense to me, with or without "rather". Besides, "rather" must be placed before the verb it modifies, not after. "I rather like it" is correct, "I like rather it" is gibberish. Similarly, "I rather would" makes sense, but "I would rather" doesn't, unless it precedes yet another verb ("I would rather do/see/prefer/know/..."). –  RegDwigнt Aug 14 '10 at 15:35
3  
No, I don't think you're right. It's true that these days, the primary meaning of would is as an auxiliary. But historically that's not been its only meaning, and you can definitely find examples of uses eg in Shakespeare - see this search - that correspond to your "I would my wife made landmines." –  Daniel Roseman Aug 14 '10 at 19:53
2  
"Would" is definitely not functioning as an auxiliary here. Grammatically (but not semantically) it is the main verb of the main clause. When you say "I'd rather he go" it's really "I would rather that he go". Here you can clearly see that we have a main clause and a subordinate clause functioning as the direct object. –  Gregory Higley Aug 15 '10 at 21:21
2  
@Gregory: again, if "would" were the main verb of the main clause, "rather" would be positioned before it, not after. In "I rather would that he go", there is no question that "would" is the main verb, while "I would rather that he go" immediately raises the question "You would rather what that he go?", because "rather" cannot be placed directly before a "that" of a subordinate clause. –  RegDwigнt Aug 16 '10 at 7:51
4  
@RegDwight - as others have commented, these just seem wrong/ungrammatical to me (even in a colloquial context) - as if someone has misheard (or mistyped) the original phrase - or perhaps the "'d" is so slight in pronunciation that they choose not to write it. It's possible that there is some dialect in which this is acceptable, but to me (British) it just seems like a mistake (albeit perhaps a common one - perhaps akin to "could of", "would of" in place of "could have", "would have" etc.) –  psmears Jan 13 '11 at 19:58

I'd say that rather than 'rather' being a verb here, the verb is omitted and presumed to be obvious.

Now, pedantically speaking, this may be something to frown upon, but is certainly common. And, I agree, it is jarring to hear.

share|improve this answer
2  
Yes, pedantically speaking one should never leave words out. English teachers don't do it, and I don't [leave words out], either. It's terribly uncouth. :) –  Alan Hogue Aug 13 '10 at 18:10
2  
the funny thing is that grammatically, it would make much more sense to omit the "rather" and keep the verb, because the verb carries all the meaning, while "rather" is merely an amplifier of that meaning. "I rather hot salsa" is completely ambiguous, it could mean "I rather like/love/prefer hot salsa" just as well as "I rather dislike/hate/detest hot salsa". Of course, in everyday speech, the implied meaning is always positive, but that's precisely my point: people are increasingly using "rather" as a synonym for "to prefer". –  RegDwigнt Aug 16 '10 at 8:13
    
I agree. For a negative sense "rather not" is used. But, "rather" depicts a sense of implicit comparison, which the verb only use can not put across. This is certainly not meant to be justification for that use case, just an explanation of it. –  Vaibhav Garg Aug 16 '10 at 9:14
1  
www.dictionary.com defines 'rather' with this usage and gives the part-of-speech as "idiom", which I take to mean it doesn't make grammatic sense but is used often enough to be considered correct –  DJClayworth Aug 19 '10 at 20:26
4  
@Alan Hogue: True of course (and amusing post), but I'll point out that Shakespeare did it. The first example I found was Capulet, from Act 1, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet: "I'll to my rest." (shakespeare.mit.edu/romeo_juliet/romeo_juliet.1.5.html) –  Andy Oct 25 '10 at 15:05

In these examples "rather" stands for "preferably, more readily or willingly". You are, of course, correct. However, in spoken English sometimes the "'d" is lost and many people make this mistake even when writing.

share|improve this answer

protected by Jasper Loy Jun 10 '12 at 17:19

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.