In Conan Doyle's The Greek Interpreter, a character says "If ... you had better never have been born". This sounds fine to my ear, but I believe "had have been" is generally considered incorrect.

If the insertion of a couple of adverbs makes it correct, how does it? Am I parsing it incorrectly? Alternatively, was the character (of an educated class) — or the author — making a mistake?

Thanks, and Merry Christmas to all.

  • 2
    It's a hair awkward to the modern ear but probably idiomatic to Conan Doyle's contemporaries. You can read it as "you would be better off if you had never been born". – Hot Licks Dec 25 '16 at 13:25
  • "Had" is different from "had better". – sumelic Jan 24 '17 at 13:28
  • had better and had rather (which has changed to would rather in contemporary English) are very strange grammatical constructions. The sentence is perfectly correct. – Peter Shor Feb 23 '17 at 14:18
  • The OED says this expression originally was were better, where were was the subjunctive. This made grammatical sense. The loss of the English subjunctive and the change to had means this is now an idiom which can't be interpreted using standard English grammar. – Peter Shor Feb 23 '17 at 14:31
  • "Had better" is a phrasal modal, like "might as well", "ought to", and "used to". It's a phrase that functions like a modal auxiliary. – William Mar 25 '17 at 15:04

“You better watch out”

In “The Greek Interpreter”, Conan Doyle wrote:

“There was a colored gas-lamp inside which was turned so low that I could see little save that the hall was of some size and hung with pictures. In the dim light I could make out that the person who had opened the door was a small, mean-looking, middle-aged man with rounded shoulders. As he turned towards us the glint of the light showed me that he was wearing glasses.

“ ‘Is this Mr. Melas, Harold?’ said he.

“ ‘Yes.’

“ ‘Well done, well done! No ill-will, Mr. Melas, I hope, but we could not get on without you. If you deal fair with us you’ll not regret it, but if you try any tricks, God help you!’ He spoke in a nervous, jerky fashion, and with little giggling laughs in be- tween, but somehow he impressed me with fear more than the other.

“ ‘What do you want with me?’ I asked.

“ ‘Only to ask a few questions of a Greek gentleman who is visiting us, and to let us have the answers. But say no more than you are told to say, or—’ here came the nervous giggle again—‘you had better never have been born.’

“You better not cry”

Saying you had better means it would be best for you. Merriam-Webster says it means “would be wise to”, and Collins adds that it (as well as you had best) is used to convey obligation or compulsion, as in ought to.

Oxford Dictionaries Online (not the OED), says that it means “Would find it wiser to do something; ought to do something”, and offers for had best do something “Find it most sensible or well advised to do the thing mentioned”.

“He’s making a list”

These all take infinitive complements. Use the straight infinitive to convey the present:

  • You should be on your best behavior.
  • You ought to be on your best behavior.
  • You had better be on your best behavior.

“And checking it twice”

And use the perfect infinitive to convey the past:

  • You should have been on your best behavior.
  • You ought to have been on your best behavior.
  • You had better have been on your best behavior.

“Santa Claus is coming to town”

In a 2013 Christmas article on Six grammar points to watch out for in Christmas songs, Arika Okrent wrote in The Week:

Though the "had better" construction has been a part of English for 1000 years, it came from a distortion of phrases like "him were better that he never were born," where "were" was a subjunctive ("it would have been better") and "him" (or "me," "you," "us") was in the dative case ("him were better" = "it would have been better for him"). People started changing the dative to the subject case ("he were better") and then changed the "were" to "had."

That was all hundreds of years ago. Then, in the 1800s, people started dropping the "had." The grammar books of the late 1800s tried mightily to shore up the "had" (some even making up a rule from nowhere that it should be "would," as in "he would better"), but these days the bare form is considered correct, if a bit casual for formal contexts. Clearly, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" wants nothing to do with fancy formality. So "you better watch out" is the way to go.

So the phrase by Conan Doyle is just fine. It is not a “past perfect” form at all. Think of it as a modal use, one preterite in form and like other modals taking an infinitive for the present and a perfect infinitive for the past.

  • I have to disagree with the dictionaries’ definition of what had better/best means: rather than implying obligation or compulsion, I’d say it is essentially a hedged order (do it if you know what’s best for you … or else). “You’d better be gone when I get back” doesn’t mean “You ought to be gone when I get back” as much as it means “Be gone when I get back… or else!”. That’s why this particular instance sounds so off to me: “Have never been born… or else!”, ordering someone to retroactively cancel out their own existence, is nonsensical in this dimension. With certain other perfects, → – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 25 '16 at 13:05
  • → such as the one in your example here (or “You’d better have brought the things I asked you to!”), it makes more sense to pseudo-imperatively order a past action with the threat of an “… or else” implied. But in Conan Doyle’s example, there can be no order, only a suggestion of a superior alternative. (Note: I’m not saying Conan Doyle’s usage is wrong—but I would say that the hedged-imperative usage of had better has eclipsed the “would be preferable to” usage since his time to an extent where his way of using it sounds most unusual. At least it does to me.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 25 '16 at 13:09
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I believe two peculiarities in the underlying grammar here explain your ill ease with Doyle’s use. In support of what I take as your primary thesis that this involves a “pseudo”-imperative, Collins does include a second sense of obligation equating had best do something to ought to do something. Saying you had better/best feels deontic to me. The first of two grammatical matters is how obligation modals (like “You must/should/ought-to eat.”) can be rewritten into full imperatives when taking a simple infinitive only, such as here with just plain “Eat.” [cont.] – tchrist Dec 25 '16 at 14:29
  • [cont.] However, their “past” forms with perfect infinitives cannot be rewritten like that because you cannot command someone in the present to have done already done something in the past. “You had better have eaten breakfast” cannot be written into an imperative “∗Have eaten breakfast” as that is not grammatical. The other sticking point of grammar here is how to be born is normally a passive with no corresponding imperative like “∗Be born!”. It’s even worse to try to make an imperative perfect passive for a past tense: “∗Have been born!” Both these make for ungrammatical transforms. – tchrist Dec 25 '16 at 14:43

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