Is there a difference between ‘better yet’ and ‘better still’?
This Ngram shows an interesting trend.
In the most common case they are completely indistinguishable — and in recent years they’ve come to be used with comparable frequency, as I show in the graph below.
That said, there can be differences between them in certain “rescue readings” given enough set up, but these differences are ones that Google N-gram is useless for distinguishing because it takes more context.
Mostly the differences are because yet and still do not themselves work quite the same way, and so even when you mix better into the equation, there can still sometimes be a few minor but lingering differences remaining.
Better still, do it yourself.
Better yet, do it yourself.
Still better, do it yourself.
*Yet better, do it yourself.
Notice the difference in magnitudes here in this revised Google N-gram:
Another way to look at that is like this, showing ratios of 18 ∶ 19 ∶ 1 ∶ 12, respectively:
You can say this easily enough:
Still better would be making it attractive to people to be less reliant on cars and to use less carbon-intense forms of transportation, especially for short journeys.
But you cannot do that with yet, at least not so naturally.
Are you better yet?
I’m not better yet.
But these are not:
Are you better *still?
I’m not better *still.
However, you can put the still first when you have some follow-on bits:
Are you still better than he is?
In modern American English yet is normally reserved for use as a negative polarity item (NPI; restricted to negated clauses, questions, or protasis clauses). So you can say:
I'm not hungry yet.
?I am hungry yet.
The latter would be understood, but it is uncommon to hear. Use of yet outside of NPI contexts is uncommon now, but was not always. Yet used to have a broader overall meaning. It could mean more, as in this example from 1497:
Wages of maryners..ixli vijs. Vitayle..vijli xxd. Yet Wages of maryners..iiijli xs xd
Yet here is used similarly to how more would today. Now the meaning is restricted to that of "in continuation" (without the sense of "in addition"). Use of yet outside of NPI contexts was formerly frequent, but now is coded archaic in the Oxford English Dictionary.
At the time the expression better yet was coined, yet was used in places where still is now. Another google ngram will show still surpassing yet overall in the mid ninteenth century. I'd guess this is the time at which yet started to become restricted to NPI environments.
If that were the case, then better yet would have solidified into a fixed expression (whose meaning did not have to be computed from its parts on the spot [even though, in principle it could]), by this time, so the drift of yet to become restricted to NPI contexts would have left better yet stranded. I'd venture that better still doesn't qualify as a fixed expression today, but don't know what data there would be to show that.
One way to test whether these are equivalent is to use both in a piece of text, then swap the position and see if that makes any difference. if one of them was slightly better than the other, then one of the orderings should feel wrong.
It's better to brew your own coffee than use instant. Better yet: grind your own beans. Better still: make sure those beans are fresh.
It's better to brew your own coffee than use instant. Better still: grind your own beans. Better yet: make sure those beans are fresh.
To me, the first one feels slightly more natural, implying that (for me at least) "better still" slightly trumps "better yet". But, this might just be my opinion. I think that both are valid, anyway. You could also repeat either of them, eg
It's better to brew your own coffee than use instant. Better yet: grind your own beans. Better yet: make sure those beans are fresh.
but i think it's better to avoid the repetition.
Examples of better still as found in Google Books. In the extract cited below, better still could be substituted with better yet with hardly any change in meaning.
"Pif-paf Poltrie, what trade are you? are you a tailor?" Better still !" " A shoemaker ?" "Better still!" "A ploughman?" "Better still!" "A joiner?" "Better still!" "A smith?" " Better still !" "A miller?" "Better still!" "Perhaps a broom-binder?"
German Popular Tales and Household Stories 1857
Pif-paf Poltrie who exclaims "Better still!" states their trade is preferable to the one suggested by the other speaker. Using better yet would not change the meaning but, on the contrary, might emphasize this "contrast".
In the following example, I would hesitate before claiming that better yet is interchangeable with better still
To be employed and to be one's own master, both are sweet, 18
but it is better still to find a treasure.
Offspring and the founding of a city perpetuate a man's name, 19
but better still is a perfect wife.
Wine and music gladden the heart, 20
but better still is the love of wisdom.
Flute and harp make pleasant melody, 21
but better still is a pleasant voice.
A man likes to see grace and beauty, 22
but better still the green shoots in a cornfield.
A friend or companion is always welcome, 23
but better still to be man and wife.
Ecclesiasticus, Or, The Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach. Commentary by John G. Snaith 1974.
In this case, using better still seems to emphasise that the following situation is even more preferable. In my view, using better yet would suggest that the previous situation should be discarded. However, if we take the first line, we see that to be self-employed is desirable, but to be self-employed and find a fortune is even better.
Dictionaries tend to say that "better yet" and "better still" are equivalent, but I haven't found any examples with "better still". Here's one in context with "better yet":
Tomorrow will be near perfect for a late February day, with sunny skies and highs in the mid 60s. The only fly in the ointment will be gusty winds at times. Winds are SW 10-15 mph, with gusts frequently higher. Monday and Tuesday look even better yet if you’ve got spring fever! We’ll see sunshine and near 70 degrees both days.
I guess "better yet" makes more sense because Monday and Tuesday are not here yet. In other words, they are yet to come. However, "better still" would probably mean that the weather will continue to improve.
Similarly, we may ask ourselves the difference between "He still hasn't arrived" and "He hasn't arrived yet", or the difference between "I still haven't finished" and "I haven't finished yet".
You could say "He's still in bed" because STILL expresses continuity, but you couldn't say "*He's yet in bed" for the same reason: you can be in bed, still in bed, but you can't be still in bed if you're not in bed yet.
On the other hand you could say "He's not in bed yet" or "Is he in bed yet?". YET suggests that the event is yet to come in a negative sentence and that the hypothesis is yet to be verified in a question.
As Frank Sinatra sings "The best is yet to come" because the best hasn't come yet: you can expect it, but in this case it means that despite appearance, although you might think this is already excellent, I shall surprise you by making it even better. It's a way of saying that if you already like it, "you ain't seen nuthin' yet !" (braggarts, smooth talkers and street vendors who like to surprise people by their rhetoric).
As a matter of fact 'The best is yet to come" suggests something surprising or something that is hard to infer from the context. A linguist might say that the information is not congruent (easily retrievable from context).
The context is important to decide between YET and STILL. YET signals information that is not obvious in relation with the rest of the context. YET often works hand in hand with HOWEVER to reveal contradiction or unexpected information:
Ricky Lutton is adamant that best is yet to come
For most players, hitting 30 is normally a stark reminder that their career is edging that bit closer towards full-time while, for members of the backline, reaching the milestone is definitely a moment when anxiety levels tend to begin an irreversible rise. However, it's not quite the same for front five players and, in particular, those who earn their keep playing prop. Which essentially means that Ricky Lutton is fairly relaxed about his own 30th birthday, which just happens to be today.
As an alternative, you can say "his best is yet to be delivered". You will notice the use of HOWEVER and DESPITE:
Jay Rollins scored one and made the other as Boston United beat Bradford Park Avenue 2-1 last night. However, despite his dazzling display, the Pilgrims winger says his best football is yet to be delivered.
But you could also say "the best is still to come" if you think that things are already very good, have become even better in a continuous process of improvement, and that eventually you will reach something near to perfection:
but we believe that the best is still to come. We hope that all of you will continue to be part of this wonderful artistic adventure.
The Wyoming Lottery Corporation has taken the first steps on what we hope will be a tremendously successful journey, and we believe the best is still to come.
In this case, information is presented as congruent, obvious, self-evident or expected in the continuous process of improvement.
You will also notice that YET can be a substitute for BUT:
• He was strict but kind
• He was strict yet kind
It's because "strict" is usually considered as a synonym of "tough", and "tough" can be perceived as the antonym of "kind". So it is unexpected to say "He was strict yet kind". The relation between STRICT and KIND is not congruent.
In other words STILL carries the notion of continuity (or congruence through continuity) wheareas YET disrupts continuity and suggests information that is not congruent, that is information which is not obvious or in accordance with what you might expect.
That's why YET works well in a negation:
We have not as yet received a response (despite our expectation and the fact we wrote him)
Or can express surprise and regret in the following question:
Must you go just yet? (I wasn't expecting that you were to leave so soon. What a pity!)
Or express incongruence in relation with good manners:
They would criticize me, or worse yet, pay me no attention. (How rude!)
Or incongruence as far as behavior:
She doesn't get a big salary yet she's always buying things. (How ridiculous!)
Or suggest information which is not obvious:
He has played 3 times but has yet to win. (It's not obvious that he's going to win)
Or signal new information after a comma, as WHICH would do:
He finished in 22 seconds, his fastest time yet = He finished in 22 seconds, which is his fastest time.
Or have a meaning close to BUT / NONETHELESS / HOWEVER to show contradiction in relation with what might have been expected:
You have been friendly, fraternal and yet firm when you have had to be so.
You have been friendly, fraternal but nonetheless firm when you have had to be so.
You have been friendly and fraternal. However, you remained firm when needed.
If you think about it, the meaning of YET is not that different in "The children aren't in bed yet, and yet it's late!".
YET may sometimes appear as an equivalent of STILL:
A negotiated settlement might yet be possible.
A negotiated settlement might still be possible.
But "yet possible" would mean "despite the odds" while "still possible" would mean "if we strive on / continue our efforts to reach for an agreement.
In some cases, YET can express continuity:
Do you recall What Apostle Peter Said in explanation of What was happening on the day of Pentecost, for now the term and to those that are afar off takes shape. God is not dead, He's yet alive ( Hebrews 6:16-18 KJV)
But then "yet alive" means something like "unlike what you may think, in spite of adversity". Here's another example concerning Jesus:
He is real as real as you or I. He's alive and He lives in the hearts of those that have given themselves to Him. One old song I remember from my childhood goes something like this, 'God's not dead, He's yet alive.
This use of YET is rare and rather archaic for it is more natural to express continuity through the use of STILL:
He's still alive! he cried. He's still alive! The body moved slightly. He's not dead after all! Alive! Alive? Alive? Yes, he's still alive. He's not dead. They just thought he was. Very peculiar. Yes! He's still alive. And after being dead! He's lucky!
Exactly. These guys have cut him off from everybody. They're holding him captive. He's their prisoner. They own him.” “Him and all his silver.” “Duh,” she said, as if that was obvious. “You are assuming that he's still alive. Which he probably isn't ...
Also check Stump's cards just in case he's using those. Check the hospitals. I want roadblocks and face checks and cavity searches at every bus stop, train station, and airport if we can get them. If he's still alive, I want him.
YET and STLL must be considered as a micro-system in the English language. Sometimes they may seem interchangeable but using one never means exactly the same as using the other, just like "This is it" doesn't exactly mean the same as "That's it" and 'We shall overcome" doesn't mean exactly the same as "We will overcone".
Thank you for your interest in this question.
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