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I'm a native speaker from the UK, but after living for more than 10 years in a foreign country, I'm beginning to notice how my English is getting much worse.

The other day, I came across a phrase that I hadn't used in a long time - would sooner have. And I began to think about its past tense. I asked a neighbour who is an English teacher (it is however her second language) and she told me that have should go after sooner e.g I would sooner have done something. I then thought, why wouldn't it be also correct to say I would have sooner done something (well she told me this one was wrong). So what's the reason behind this word order?

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The explanation is that "would sooner" is an idiom. This is found in a note to § 3.45 of "A comprehensive grammar of the English language". According to the analysis in this grammar the construction "would sooner" can be reckoned with as a modal idiom alongside other idioms of the same type. The additional idioms are joined to the list shown below.

3.45 CoGEL Modal idioms: had better, etc

This category contains the following four multi-word verbs, as well as some less common verbal constructions:
             had better     would rather    HAVE got to     BE to
They all begin with an auxiliary verb, and are followed by an infinitive (sometimes preceded by to):
We had better leave soon. Yes, we had. [1]
We'd better leave soon. Yes, we'd better. [1]
I'd rather not say anything. [2]
They've got to leave immediately. [3]
The conference is to take place in Athens. [4]

Note
[a] In addition to the four modal idioms illustrated above, the following sentences illustrate less common idioms which might be placed in the same category:
      I would sooner leave the decision to you.
      I would (just) as soon eat at home.
      We may/might (just) as well pay at once.
      You had best forget this incident.

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    I'm not sure the OP was really asking about the idiomatic part of the construction so much as the question of splitting up the past participle. I think the question could be recast with "I would have rather died" vs "I would rather have died": The OP's friend seems to be suggesting that it's wrong to insert "rather" between "have" and "died." I've kept quiet on this one because I'm not sure of the right answer, but the quotes in Michael's comment make it clear that the split-up usage is common enough. Oct 6, 2021 at 19:37
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    @AndyBonner One thing is certain and that is that in comparison the order "sooner before 'have'" is largely adhered to, and justifies to a point treating the corresponding locution as the idiom, the other one being a variant. books.google.com/ngrams/…. (1/2)
    – LPH
    Oct 6, 2021 at 19:46
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    @AndyBonner This difference in frequency is even more important for "would rather have": books.google.com/ngrams/…. It is possible that some prescriptive point of view is the cause of considering the minority forms as being "not as idiomatic" as the dominant forms.(2/2)
    – LPH
    Oct 6, 2021 at 19:52
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    My gut hunch, which I've kept quiet about because it's just that, is that there's some minor proscription against "splitting a participle." I'm not aware of such a one, though. ("I would boldy have gone where no man would have gone before...") Oct 6, 2021 at 19:56
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    @AndyBonner - I only bothered commenting because I, a southern English 69 year old educated RP speaker, would normally split the participle, e.g. I would have sooner put out my eyes than vote Leave in the referendum. It seemed rather sweeping to call it an 'idiom'. Oct 6, 2021 at 20:01
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As @LPH pointed out, be to and have got to (aka gotta) are indeed modal idioms, but they are unique conflations that include their own to complementizers as enclitics, whereas the other constructions in CGEL's list of Modal Idioms fall into a different semantic category. They're all involved with comparison, and what they're comparing is relative desires (of the speaker, usually).

All are followed by infinitives without to, which are licensed in every case (except had better) by the presence of an actual modal auxiliary in the construction.

  1. The first three are comparatives (note the -er suffix):
    • would sooner
    • had better
    • would rather
  2. the next two are equatives (the as...as construction):
    • would (just) as soon
    • may/might (just) as well
  3. and the last one is a superlative (with the characteristic -st suffix):
    • had best

Note that the equative phrases are all used to indicate a preference, not a lack of preference, between two verbs (normally, between doing something or not doing it, or between doing it one way instead of another).

As far as screwing around with the word order is concerned, idioms are tricky. By definition and in practice, they vary in how loose their constructions are. An idiom is like a TinkerToy wooden construction that's been left out in the rain. Mostly they won't come apart, except there's a slot where you can fit some kinds of things but not others. In had better/best, nothing comes apart.

  • *You didn't have better/best done that
  • *You hadn't better/best have done that

With modals and comparatives, you can get some things moved. I've heard both

  • I wouldn't sooner V

as well as the much more common version

  • I would sooner not V

... but I'd rather not vouch for any more constructions.

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