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In the Iliad (translated by Samuel Butler) I have lit upon the phrase had rather here:

But the son of Peleus again began railing at the son of Atreus, for he was still in a rage. "Wine-bibber," he cried, "with the face of a dog and the heart of a hind, you never dare to go out with the host in fight, nor yet with our chosen men in ambuscade. You shun this as you do death itself. You had rather go round and rob his prizes from any man who contradicts you. You devour your people, for you are king over a feeble folk; otherwise, son of Atreus, henceforward you would insult no man

Now, of course, to the modern English speaker would rather is the more familiar phrase. I have looked at the other “had rather questions” on this site but none of the answers has been satisfactory.

Thus my questions are; Is it simply an unlettered or vulgar form of would rather or is there grammar behind it, and if so, where can I read further on the topic? None of the answers seems to explain whether had rather is grammatical and if so why; is it an archaic version of would rather?

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    Vulgur, no. Very high-toned. RP subjunctive, maybe. Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 22:22
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    Google ngram shows "would rather" is more used than "had rather", though the difference was less in the early 1800s. Note that both contract to "you'd rather.
    – Peter
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 1:32

2 Answers 2

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The American Journal of Philology has an article entitled On the Origin of “Had Rather Go” and Analogous or Apparently Analogous Locutions. It says:

Of the verb have, Dr. Johnson, in his Dictionary, gives, as the seventeenth definition, “to wish, to desire, in a lax sense,” and adds, by way of exemplification, the familiar Biblical passage:

  • I had rather be a doorkeeper (Ps. 84:10).

[That's KJV, so think 16th century. Which makes me think of Shakespeare. He used it quite often: e.g.

I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me. (Much Ado About Nothing)]

The article from The American Journal of Philology continues:

A still more disparaging opinion, perhaps a maturer, he [Dr. Johnson] records under the adverb rather, where, as introductory to a sentence containing the phrase

  • He had rather mankind should adore him,

after premising “to have rather,” defined by “to desire in preference,” he remarks:

This is, I think, a barbarous expression, of late intrusion into our language, for which it is better to say will rather.

It's a very interesting read, I think you will find all your answers there. The article quotes grammarians who agree that had rather is strangely ungrammatical:

Had is an auxiliary verb, and so cannot be coupled with an infinitive. Thus argued Thomas Sheridan, in 1784:

‘I had rather’. This phrase is strangely ungrammatical. Rather means ‘ more willingly.’

The adverb rather is expressive of an act of the will, and, therefore, should be joined to the verb to will, and not to the auxiliary to have. Instead of ‘I had rather’ it should be ‘I would rather’.

Bishop Lowth remarks, in his Short Introduction to English Grammar:

It has been very rightly observed, that the verb had, in the common phrase ‘I had rather’ is not properly used either as an active or as an auxiliary verb; that, being in the past time, it cannot, in this case, be properly expressive of time present ; and that it is by no means reducible to any grammatical construction. In truth, it seems to have arisen from a mere mistake, in resolving the familiar and ambiguous abbreviation ‘I'd rather’ into ‘I had rather’ instead of ‘I would rather’ which latter is the regular, analogous [read analogical], and proper expression.

I don't want this post to become too long but I will still add what the article says about Merriam-Webster's opinion about the matter

Later grammarians and lexicographers, in general, accept this solution; and the editors of Webster’s Dictionary go so far as confidently to pronounce had rather, had as lief, and had better to have been ‘originally, mere blundering interpretations of the abbreviated form of would as in I’d rather’.

Despite all that, the expression had rather is considered idiomatic, though listed as archaic/literary in dictionaries. This question about the usage of had rather may also help.

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    A fascinating story of how the barbarous can become acceptable and then slip into the archaic/literary register. Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 10:44
  • Had has too many jobs already. Better to use a modal, since rather is comparative. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 0:56
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The verbs in speech by Peleus’ son are all in the continuous present because that was the situation in the past, and it continues now. If the speaker was alive today, instead of saying,” You would rather” he would have said, “You would have rather” or the Greek equivalent. “You had rather” meant just that. He can’t accuse him of doing that, but he suspects that is what the son of Atreus would have liked to do. Never would I have argued Greek translation with Samuel Butler.

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