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"I'd rather you didn't open the window."

I'm confused about the grammaticality of this sentence. I've learned that "rather" can only ever be an adverb, not a verb. Because I thought "rather" functioned as the main verb in sentences like the above (I'd rather + a different subject + past simple clause) , I believed this sentence and others like it were wrong and that I should use "prefer" as the verb instead. I could therefore write "I would prefer it if you didn't open the window," or "I would prefer you not to open the window."

However, I have done some more research, which included reading this post, and have learned that "rather" is still fuctioning as an adverb in my original sentence. This has confused me. What is the main verb of the sentence if it's not "rather"? It can't be the "would" in the contraction, because "would" is an auxiliary verb, which can't be a main verb. The impression I got from reading some of the answers on the other question was that the main verb is omitted. In that case, what is the omitted verb? I have tried to find the answer on my own but haven't come across anything definitive.

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    If by 'main verb' you mean the matrix verb, then it's the verbal idiom "would rather" (contracted to 'd rather). "You didn't open the window" is a subordinate clause functioning as complement of "would rather".
    – BillJ
    Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 6:55
  • @BillJ So it would be incorrect to say that "rather" is an adverb modifying "would" because the whole of "would rather" is functioning as the verb?
    – JJ_Doogal
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 12:00
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    No: "rather" is an adverb, though it doesn't modify the auxiliary verb "would" but combines with it to form the two-word verbal idiom, "would rather".
    – BillJ
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 12:24

3 Answers 3

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I'd rather you didn't open the window.

The matrix (or main) verb is the modal idiom "would rather" (contracted to 'd rather).

"You didn't open the window" is then a finite subordinate clause functioning as complement of 'd rather, with its own subject-predicate structure.

It's a tentative way of expressing a preference, allowing that the referent of "they" may not do so.

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In a comment, John Lawler wrote:

Well, that's a very old construction and it comes from the olden times when modal verbs could be inflected. This is the would of I would that the world be different, meaning 'wish'; it's the past and may be subjunctive of willan, to will, want, desire, intend. Nowadays most people hear would rather as an idiom and don't worry about rather not being a verb. One can substitute prefer for rather, if one feels naked without a verb.

So even though you would that it were otherwise, every now and again would is actually the main verb rather than a mere auxiliary.

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  • So is "rather" modifying the verb "would" here? Also, in constructions like this, should the verb in the subordinate clause be past tense? If "would" is past, then, if we are to follow the backshifting rule, the following verb should be as well. However, I've seen both past and present verbs follow "would rather". For instance, should I write "I would rather they had problems and learned to overcome them than not have any problems at all," or "I would rather they have problems and learn to overcome them than not have any problems at all."
    – JJ_Doogal
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 11:59
  • @JJ_Doogal "would rather" is not backshifted, but a modal preterite. The subordinate clause is a modal preterite, i.e. past form, but (in this case) present time. "Would rather" they had problems" is a remote preterite perfect, while "would rather they have problems" is remote present tense. There's little discernible difference in meaning.
    – BillJ
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 13:11
  • Thank you for the answer. I've given it some more thought and have another tense-related question: If I want to express someone's past preference for a past event, how should I word it? The guides I have found advise using the past perfect to express a preference about a past event. E.g. 'She would rather he hadn't taken the boys up to London.' But what if I want to convey that the preference itself was in the past and is no longer held? For instance, what if the "She" in my example is now deceased or has simply changed her mind? The previous wording doesn't seem to work.
    – JJ_Doogal
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 0:35
  • @JJ_Doogal Just add have and don't let the verb phrases get too complicated to understand. She would have rather he not take the boys up to London means that sometime in the past she didn't want him to take them there. That's why people say I would rather he not do that in the present. Just make would into would have. It might seem funny if you think about it too much, but it seems to work out ok.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 1:49
  • @tchrist Ok, thank you. Can I use the simple past tense to follow he, (She would have rather he didn't take the boys...), or does it have to be followed by the bare infinitive? Is there much difference in meaning?
    – JJ_Doogal
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 11:00
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The verb of the sentence ‘I would rather you did not open the window’ is the verb open.

A normal use of rather, when there is only one subject, would be ‘I would rather not do that.’ In this case, the ‘I would rather’ is followed by a bare infinitive (an infinitive with the ‘to’).

When the the subject of the sub-clause differs to the subject of the main-clause, the verb is then conjugated as a past subjunctive (conditional) which is basically the preterite conjugation of the verb. For example, ‘I would rather you did not do that.’

So, the case that you have put forward is an example of the second scenario (‘I would rather you did not open the window’, the subject of the sub-clause being ‘you’, whilst the subject of the main-clause is the ‘I’). This means that the ‘do’ is put into the preterite conjugation, but it merely becomes a helping verb with no meaning in the sentence other than supporting the main verb of ‘open’. Basically, a long-winded way to say it, the ‘open’ is the main verb of the sentence.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/would-rather-would-sooner

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