Saturday, March 15, 2014

Random thoughts on had rather, profusely illustrated with extracts from literature

Somebody wrote to WordReference forums with a 'question taken from an exam', where you have to fill the gap with one of the options given:
"She ____they travelled by bus."
  1. would sooner
  2. had rather
  3. had sooner
I don't know whether it said 'Choose the best option' or 'Choose the correct option', but either way, the answer they gave was 1. - would sooner. But what I'm interested in is whether both the other answers are 'wrong'.

Would rather / would sooner

As a reminder for any foreign learners reading this, these two expressions have a similar meaning to prefer to, but are used with a bare infinitive, or with a subject and past form.
  • I'd prefer to go the cinema, myself
    He'd prefer it if you came a bit earlier.
  • She'd rather have
    I'd rather you didn't do that.
  • They'd sooner not have to pay in advance.
    Would you sooner I left now?
In spoken English we nearly always contract (except in questions), so all we usually hear is 'd. But what about when it comes to written language? Can we use had instead of would?
As we shall see, rather was not the only word used like this after had: we have the expression had better - I'd better get a move on, and before Shakespeare's day there had been the expression had liefer, which had a similar meaning to had rather, and from this had developed the expression had lief as, meaning would (just) as willingly, used quite a bit by Shakespeare.
Incidentally, rather was originally the comparative of an adjective we don't use any more - rathe - meaning 'early, soon, quick', hence the similarity of the two expressions had rather and had sooner.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies

Lycidas, John Milton 1637

Are had rather and had sooner idiomatic English?

It rather looks as though the person who set that question thinks not. Let's have a look how they've been used in British books over the last three hundred years or so.
First of all we can see, perhaps not surprisingly, that:
  • would rather is much more common than had rather
  • had sooner has hardly been used at all at any time
On the other hand:
  • until somewhere toward the end of the eighteenth century, had rather was more common than would rather
  • at first glance, the graph suggests that even today, had rather is more common than would sooner
There is a small problem with this, however, in that Ngram will also catch sentences like 'I had rather set my mind on it', where rather is simply modifying the verb set. So we need to look at some rather harder evidence.

At the British National Corpus

The British National Corpus is a computerised collection of over 100 million words taken from British sources from mainly the 1980s and 1990s.
  • would rather - 547
  • had rather - 12-20 (?) Show examples
  • would sooner - 41
  • had sooner - 1 Show example
For had rather, the BNC showed a random 50 from 105 hits. Of these 50, only six used had rather in the sense we are looking for. So if this is typical, there are probably less than twenty in all. It's also worth mentioning that in at least four of the six examples of had rather, the expression is attributed to someone (real or fictional) from the 18th or 19th centuries.
So we can say, that in the British National Corpus at any rate, would rather is overwhelmingly more common than had rather, and also much more common than would sooner.

Literary or archaic perhaps, but is had rather incorrect?

Oxford Dictionaries Online say that had rather is 'literary or archaic'; in Practical English Usage, Michael Swan says:
In older English, had rather was used in the same way as would rather. This structure is still found in grammars, but is not normally used in modern British English.
None of the standard British learner's dictionaries list had rather, and I certainly wouldn't want to suggest foreign learners use it, but I'd still like to know - is it incorrect? First I had a look at some usage guides.

Usage guides

Henry Fowler, writing in 1928, says:
I had rather is as idiomatic as I would rather.

Modern English Usage, H.W.Fowler, 1928

Robert Burchfield, editor of the Third Edition (1996) of Fowler saw no reason to change this position.
The blurb to Usage and Abusage, suggests that Eric Partridge treats the use of would rather or had rather as a point of style, along the lines of different from and different to.
And from an American perspective, at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage they say much the same thing as Fowler, although in a lot more detail:
Had rather is a perfectly respectable and perfectly standard English idiom. By Shakespeare's time had pretty well replaced 'had liefer'.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage

And here's Brian Garner of Garner's Modern American Usage
had rather; would rather. Both phrases are idiomatic and old. Today would rather is the predominant form, but both forms are fully established.

Garner's Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner

So according to the usage guides had rather is OK if a minority use. Next I wondered how the history of the two expressions compared.

Introduction to the history of had rather

What I hadn't realised when I started this post was that this was at one time one of the most controversial areas of English usage, and what I thought would take me a couple of hours to write has taken more like two weeks. For the history of had rather, and the controversy that surrounds it, my leads have largely come from the following publications, although I've also found quite a few myself, as one thing has lead to another.
  • The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU)
  • Otto Jespersen's A Modern English Grammar, the relevant section of which is available at Google Books (link at the end)
  • On the Origin of "Had rather go" and Analogous or Apparently Analogous Locutions, an essay by Fitzedward Hall, published in the American Journal of Philology, 1881
There are quite a few modern books I can't access which broach the subject, as well as what looks like an interesting paper by W. van der by Gaaf, 'The Origin of Would Rather and Some of its Analogues.' (Engl.Studien XLV, 1912, 381-96), which seems stubbornly unavailable. There are also a couple of lengthy treatments of it from the end of the nineteenth century, by Lounsbury and Hall, both freely available online and to download - see Further Reading. I've divided the rest of this post up into:
  • From Chaucer to the end of the sixteenth century
  • Aside #1 - The problem with quoting Sir Thomas More
  • Shakespeare
  • The King James Bible
  • Seventeenth century literature
  • Eighteenth century literature
  • Nineteenth Century and beyond
  • Would sooner and had sooner
  • The controversy - the objectors
  • The controversy - the defenders

From Chaucer to the end of the sixteenth century

Would rather

The first known use of would rather seems to have been by Chaucer:
Full loth were him to curse for his tithes,
But rather would he given out of doubt,
Unto his poore parishens about

The Prologue

It woulde rather break in two than ply

The Clerk's Tale

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, end of 14th century
(had rather 0, would rather 1 maybe 2)

Had rather

Sometime in the fifteenth century, had rather started to replace an older, now archaic expression with a similar meaning, had liefer, also spelt had lever or had liever. Here's an example of had lever from Chaucer:

Prologue to the Franklin's Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer

The OED dates had rather from 1450, and here we have an example from sometime around that date. John Hardyng completed the manuscript of his Chronicle in 1437, but was still working on it in 1464, so we can put it somewhere between those two dates. It was subsequently printed for the first time in 1543.
whiche she did nowe see to haue chaused, and sowith this great feare & agonie she was in that case that she had rather dye then lyue

The chronicle of Iohn Hardyng, 1437 (first print edition 1543) []
(had rather 5, would rather 2)

Letter to Sir John Paston, 1478, from Paston Letters: Original Letters, Written During the Reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III
(had rather 1, would rather 1, had lever 12)

The History of the Valiant Knight Arthur of Little Britain, translated from the French by John Bourchier, Lord Berners d.1533 (this limited reprint 1814)

Google Books lists five books published between 1500 and 1550 with the expression had rather. For would rather it has six (one of them being in both lists).

The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke, Edward Halle, 1542 (this edition 1550)
(had rather 6, would rather 2)

A declaration of Christe of his offyce, John Hooper, 1547
(had rather 3, would rather 0)

The Praise of Folie, Erasmus, trans Sir Thomas Chaloner, 1549
(had rather 6, would rather 0)

From the second half of the sixteenth century, Otto Jesperson mentions Lyly and Marlowe, and I've also found examples from Sir Philip Sidney, John Donne and Thomas Nashe.
These discourses I haue hot clapt in a cluster, thinking with my selfe, that Ladies had rather be sprinckled with sweete water, then washed, so that I haue sowed them heere and there, lyke Strawberies, hot in heapes, lyke Hoppes

Euphues and his England, John Lyly, 1580 []
(had rather 7+, would rather 5)

Rather had I, a Jew, be hated thus,
Than pitied in a Christian poverty;

The Jew of Malta, Christopher Marlowe, 1589-1592 [Project Gutenberg]
(had rather 2, would rather 0)

The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (Last Part), Sir Philip Sidney, 1593
(had rather 4, would rather 3)

I hate extremes; yet I had rather stay
With tombs than cradles to wear out the day

Elegy IX The Autumnal, John Donne, 1596-8 (?) [Google Books]

Have with You to Saffron-Walden Or, Gabriell Harveys Hunt is Up
Thomas Nashe, 1596 (facsimile)
(had rather 2, would rather 0)

Aside #1 - The problem with quoting Sir Thomas More

More has been quoted by one or two people as being an early example of the use, on one hand of had rather, and on the other of would rather. Jesperson cites 'they had rather take them aliue', while J. L. Hall (English Usage 1917) found an instance of would rather. But there's a problem in trying to enlist More's support for one side or the other: much of what he wrote was in Latin, so the person who is really being quoted is his translator, not the illustrious man himself.
There were two early translations of Utopia, More's most famous book, one by Ralph Robinson, first published in 1556, and the other, the most commonly used translation, by Gilbert Burnet, which first appeared in 1664. That sentence quoted by Jesperson does indeed appear in Robinson's translation, but is nowhere to be found in Burnet's. In fact Robinson's translation has eight instances of had rather and none of would rather (that I can find). In contrast, Burnet's has two instances of would rather, but appears to have none of had rather. These two versions of the same passage show this difference:

Utopia, Sir Thomas More - translated from Latin by Ralph Robinson - Reprint of the revised 1556 edition
(had rather 7, would rather 0)

Utopia, Sir Thomas More - translated from Latin by by Gilbert Burnet (1664) 1743
(had rather 0, would rather 7)


MWDEU suggests 38 instances of had rather, while Jesperson ups that to 60, citing 'I had rather haue my Wounds to heale againe', from Coriolanus. With the help of Project Gutenberg we can see that in fact there are over seventy instances in the First Folio. These include:
I had rather be a Dogge, and bay the Moone,
Then such a Roman

Julius Caesar

I had rather be a Toad,
And liue vpon the vapour of a Dungeon,
Then keepe a corner in the thing I loue
For others vses.


Madam, I had rather seele my lippes,
Then to my perill speake that which is not

Anthony and Cleopatra

I had rather be a canker in a hedge, then a rose in his grace

Much Ado about Nothing

I had rather be a Kitten, and cry mew,
Then one of these same Meeter Ballad-mongers:
I had rather heare a Brazen Candlestick turn'd,
Or a dry Wheele grate on the Axle-tree

Henry IV Part 1

Mr William Shalespeare's Comedies, Histories & Tragedies (The First Folio), 1623 [Project Gutenberg]

This compares with just three for would rather.
There are no instances of would sooner or of had sooner with the meaning of would prefer.
Although there are no instances of had liefer, there are 17 instances of had as lief / liefe / liue / leeue, related to the older expression, and meaning as happily; as gladly (=just as rather). There's also one of had lief as
I had as lief haue the foppery of freedome, as the mortality of imprisonment

Measure for Measure

Nay, and you be so tardie, come no more in my sight, I had as liefe be woo'd of a Snaile

As You Like it

But if you mouth it, as many of your Players do, I had as liue the Town-Cryer had spoke my Lines


but she good soule had as leeue see a Toade, a very Toade as see him

Romeo and Juliet

2nd Servant: Pray heauen it [a linen basket] be not full of Knight againe
1st Servant: I hope not, I had liefe as beare so much lead

The Merry Wives of Windsor

The King James Bible 1611

The KJV has two instances of had rather and none of would rather
For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness


Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.


King James Bible,1611 [Project Gutenberg]
(had rather 2, would rather 0)

Seventeenth century literature

Google Books has about 190 instances of would rather and about 130 of had rather, most of which appear to fit our criteria. One is possibly from King Charles I.

Eikon Basilike, (attributed to Charles I), 1648
(had rather 8, would rather 1)

A Treatise of Selfdenyall, Richard Baxter, 1660
(had rather 20, would rather 0)

Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan, 1678
(had rather 3, would rather 0)

Eighteenth century

I had a look at four of the best-known novels from the eighteenth century as well as the works of some of the other well-known writers of the period.

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe,1719
(had rather 2, would rather 2)

The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, Esq, Vol 2 1721
(had rather 3, would rather 7)

The Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq, Vol 4, Richard Steele, 1723
(had rather 4, would rather 2)

Letter to a Lady, The works of Alexander Pope Vol 5 1739
(had rather 1, would rather 1)

Pamela or Virtue Rewarded, Samuel Richardson 1740 (this edition 1776)
(had rather 8, would rather 2)

Tom Jones, Henry Fielding, 1749
(had rather 14, would rather 11)

Tristram Shandy, Lawrence Sterne, 1757-1766
(had rather 5, would rather 3)

The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift, Vol 12, 1766
(had rather 2, would rather 5)

Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollet, 1771
(had rather 4, would rather 4)

Would sooner and had sooner

Google Books don't seem to have any examples of had sooner up to 1600, and less than ten examples of would sooner, the earliest from 1586 and four of them from the literary rivals,Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey.

The London Adviser and Guide, John Trusler, 1586

Cuthbert Conny-catcher' (Robert Greene), 1592

There are perhaps 150 examples of would sooner among seventeenth century books at Google Books. As far as I can see all the seveteenth century examples of had sooner have the meaning of earlier, rather than prefer, as in this one, which also includes three instances of had rather.Nowadays I think we'd say something like I would have given you a receipt sooner ...

Loveday's letters, domestick and forreign, Robert Loveday, 1662

This example is a bit ambiguous, but I think it still refers to earliness rather than preference.

Andronicus Comnenius: A Tragedy, John Wilson, 1664

This possibility of ambiguity is perhaps why had sooner (for preference) never really caught on, while would sooner did to a certain extent (although to much less extent than its rather rival). A few examples, however do exist:

THe Militant Couple, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, 1714

The Modern Husband, Henry Fielding, 1782

The Wheel of Fortune, Richard Cumberland, 1795

Anecdotes of some distinguished persons, William Seward, 1795

The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Robert Boyle, William Rufus Chetwood (attrib.), 1797

Although not given nearly as much attention as had rather, had sooner also raised some people's hackles.

The Critical Review: Or, Annals of Literature, Volume 26, edited by Tobias George Smollett, 1768

Nineteenth Century and beyond

By now, would rather is steadily taking over from had rather, and I could find no reference to its use in Dickens, for example, although it continues to appear sporadically in the works of other British novelists.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813
(had rather 4, would rather 2)

Emma, Jane Austen, 1815
(had rather 1, would rather 16)

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronté, 1847
(had rather 1, would rather 14)

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronté, 1847
(had rather 1, would rather 3

And one I stumbled across from Thomas Jefferson

Letter from Paris, 1788, Memoirs, correspondence and private papers, 1829, Thomas Jefferson

Jespersen also lists these from the ninteenth and twentieth centuries:
Confound his Amontillado! I had rather drink his honest malt and hops all my life than ever see a drop of his abominable sherry.

The Newcomes, W.M. Thackeray, 1855 [Project Gutenberg]
(had rather 6, would rather 10)

Thoughtless Youth, John Ruskin, short article in The Wesleyan 1867

I thought of him to make up our dinner on Sunday, but you had rather not have him here, I daresay?

Born in Exile, George Gissing, 1892 [Project Gutenberg]

I had rather be a thief than a pauper. I had rather be a murderer than a slave.

Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw, 1907 [Project Gutenberg]

The controversy - the objectors

The eighteenth century was the Age of Reason, and a new breed of grammarians, not content with ths simple observation of how English was used by its greatest exponents, wanted to understand the logic behind certain idiomatic expressions, and if possible, reconcile them with Latin and Greek. And often, if that logic couldn't be found, the grammarians decided it must be incorrect, or to use their favourite word - a barbarism.
Three expressions expressing the present or future but using had, which for them could only have past reference, gave them particular problems:
  • had liefer
  • had rather
  • had better
In particular they were bothered by this sentence from the King James Bible:
I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness
As the use of had liefer had died out before Shakespeare's time, and the use of had better had yet to take off, most of the criticism was levelled at had rather.

Samuel Johnson

Dr Johnson is usually seen as being the first person on record to criticise the use of had rather. Under the definition of have in his A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, he wrote:
17. to wish; to desire; in a lax sense.
  • I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. Psalms.
  • I would have no man discouraged with that kind of life or series of actions, in which the choice of others, or his own necessities may have engaged him. Addison.

A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson []

By the time had had got to rather, he was a bit more insistent:
6. To have RATHER. [This is, I think, a barbarous expression, of late intrusion into our language, for which it is better to say will rather] To desire in preferrence.

A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson, 1755

Johnson's Dictionary Online - 1st Edition 1755
Google Books - 4th Edition 1773 - 6th Edition 1785

Incidentally, MWDEU points out that Johnson made two 'blunders'. He hadn't realised just to what extent Shakespeare had used had rather, and the fact that he wasn't averse to using it himself occasionally.

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, Samuel Johnson 1759 (this edition 1788)
(had rather 7, would rather 6)

The Idler, Samuel Johnson, 1767

To which we could add, that this 'recent intrusion' had been around for at least three hundred years when Johnson wrote his comment.

William Salisbury

A few years later, a certain William Salisbury published an essay called 'On a Barbarism in the English Language, in a letter to Dr. S-------'. It seems that this was The Rev. William Salisbury, Fellow of St John's Cambridge, and later rector of Morton in Essex. Dr S--------- was apparently Dr. Samuel Salter, Master of Charterhouse, a clergyman and Greek scholar.

Two Grammatical Essays
, William Salisbury, 1768

This essay is spefically mentioned by Robert Lowth in the 1775 'New Corrected Edition' of his A Short Introduction to English Grammar. It was also (favourably) reviewed in Smollett's Critical Review:

The Critical Review: Or, Annals of Literature, Volume 26, edited by Tobias George Smollett, 1768

Although Smollett wasn't totally immune from using this 'barbarous' expression himself:

The Adventures of Roderick Random, Vol 1, Tobias Smollett, 1774

(had rather 1, would rather 3)

Robert Lowth

Lowth is widely credited (?) with being the first prescriptivist grammarian, and his Short Introduction to English Grammar first appeared in 1762. There doesn't seem to be anything about had rather in the earlier editions, but in 1775 appeared 'A New Edition, Corrected' in which this note appeared:

A Short Introduction to English Grammar, Robert Lowth, 1775

Lowth takes up Salisbury's idea that the expression had rather had come about as a misunderstanding of the contracted I'd rather, an idea that has been much repeated since, by the next writer, amongst others:

George Campbell

The Philosophy of Rhetoric, George Campbell, 1776

The essay he was no doubt referring to was the one by William Salisbury, also mentioned by Dr Lowth.

Lindley Murray

While Lowth had dominated grammar writing in the second half of the eighteenth century, the next half century would be dominated by Lindley Murray, who, not surprisingly perhaps, joined in the chorus of disapproval:

English grammar, adapted to the different classes of learners, Lindley Murray, 1795 (this edition 1815)

Alexander Crombie

A treatise on the etymology and syntax of the English language, Alexander Crombie, 1802 (second edition 1809)

Crombie was perhaps the first to extend this condemnation to include had better.

A treatise on the etymology and syntax of the English language, Alexander Crombie, 1802 (second edition 1809)

Thomas Sheridan

Sheridan included had rather in his dictionary, but with a note of disapproval.

A General Dictionary of the English Language, Thomas Sheridan 1780

And in the preface to his collection of works by Swift, often seen as a model writer, he wrote:

From Sheridan's Preface to The Works of the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift, 1784

And, in what is becoming a familiar story, strangely didn't stop Sheridan using it himself.

The Critic, Richard Sheridan, 1778 (this edition 1833)
In this edition of the Complete Works (had rather 4, would rather 0)

Walter Savage Landor

One of the most outspoken critics was writer and poet Walter Savage Landor (1775 - 1864), who addressed the issue several times. Again had better is included in the general criticism with had rather.

Imaginary Conversations of Literary Men and Statesmen, Volume 2, Walter Savage Landor, 1823

Robert Browning

Landor's opinion was fully shared by his friend Robert Browning. In a book on the work of Browning, Mrs Sutherland Orr wrote:
The universal "I had better;" "I had rather," is abhorrent to him.

A Handbook to the Works of Robert Browning, Mrs Sutherland Orr, 1885
[Project Gutenberg]

This was confirmed in a letter Browning wrote to Mrs Orr:
As regards my objection to the slovenly 'I had' for 'I'd,' instead of the proper 'I would,' I shall not venture to supplement what Landor has magisterially spoken on the subject.

Letter to Mrs Sutherland Orr, Robert Browning, 1885 [Project Gutenberg]

The editors of an 1886 collection of Browning's poems commented:
This is essentially the familiar grammar-monger’s objection to had better, had rather, had as lief, etc., that they ‘cannot be parsed’—which is true of many another well-established idiom, and merely shows that the ‘parsers’ have something yet to learn.

Select Poems of Robert Browning, edited by William J. Rolfe and Heloise E. Hersey, 1886, (found at [Grammarphobia])

Noah Webster

In his original An American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828, Noah Webster wrote:
Had rather, is supposed to be a corruption of would rather. ... This phrase may have been originally, "I'd rather," for I would rather, and the contraction afterwards mistaken for had. Correct speakers and writers generally use would in all such phrases; I would rather, I prefer; I desire in preference.


In the 1880 edition, 'thoroughly revised and improved' by Chauncey A Goodrich and Noah Porter, the language had changed somewhat:
Had rather, had as lief, had better, originally, mere blundering interpretations of the abbreviated form of would, as in 'I'd rather,' etc. are forms too well supported to be stigmatized as incorrect; but would is generally preferred, especially where the auxiliary have follows, had have being too barbarous a combination to be tolerated.

Webster's Complete Dictionary of the English Language, [ (1886)]

Richard Grant White

Leading American Shakespeare critic takes a similar line: yes, it has been used by some of the greatest writers in the English language, but it is wrong:
Yet another example of the so-called authoritative misuse of language is the use of had in the phrases, I had rather, You had better. This has the sanction of usage for centuries, not only by the English-speaking people generally, but by their greatest and most careful writers. Nothing, however, among the few enduring certainties of language is more certain than that had expresses perfected and past possession. How, then, consistently with reason, and with its constant and universally accepted meaning, in every other connection, can it be used to express future action ?

Words and their Uses, Richard Grant White 1882 []

From being the standard and much more widely used expression, had rather had become an 'error', usurped by would rather, due to the whim of a few men, because they didn't understand it. It is possible that a natural change form had to would was taking place anyway, but these men's disaproval certainly hastened it.

The controversy - the defenders

What Lowth and Campbell had missed was that had was being not as an auxiliary but that it was an old form of the subjunctive of have, pointed out by Carey in 1816 and Fowler in 1928. This is still noticeable in the expression had better, and the old, now archaic, expression that had rather seems to have replaced, had liefer.

John Carey 1816

Writing in 1816, John Carey disagrees with Johnson on had rather, which he calls not only 'genuine English', but 'a very good expression':

Practical English prosody and versification, John Carey 1816

All The Year Round 1869 & Notes and Queries 1870

In its edition for August 1869, the magazine All The Year Round [], 'conducted by Charles Dickens', published an article entitled "Had" and "Would". The writer (Dickens perhaps?) asks:
Can any learned lexicographer, grammarian, or philologist inform the world at what time the words "had" and "would" became synonymous in English speech, when joined with the words better, sooner, and rather?
and quotes a phrase from Hamlet that we saw earlier - 'But if you mouth it, as many of your Players do, I had as lief the Town-Cryer had spoke my Lines', and regrets that Shakespeare hadn't 'corrected his proof sheets', assuming, apparently, that he had originally written 'I'd as lief', possibly meaning 'I would as lief'. The writer continues:
This last unfortunate expression seems to be the fount and origin of what must be considered a perversion of the word had from its true meaning, and which has thence spread into literature, and produced other perversions, made after its own image
Writing the following year, a certain J.R. commented, in Notes & Queries:

Notes and Queries 1870

As well as quoting several more examples from Shakespeare, J.R. also shows that the example from Hamlet was far from being the 'fount and origin' of had with present meaning, and that this use went back a long way:
Alas! that ever I knew Perithous.
For elles had I dwelt with Theseus
Y-fettered in his prison evermo'.
Then had I been in bliss, and not in woe.

The Knight's Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer
[Project Gutenberg]

Now if these shepheardes hadde bene deceitfull fellowes, that when theyr maysters had put them in trust to keepe theyr sheepe, they had bene drinking in ye alehouse all night as some of our servaunts do now a dayes, surely the Aungell had not appeared vnto them to have tolde them this great ioy and good tidinges.

Sermon preached in 1552, Archbishop Latimer,
from Chambers's readings in English prose ... 1558 to 1860

Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.

The Gospel acording to St.John, the King James Bible
[Project Gutenberg]

In modern English we could express these as:
  • had I been = I would have been
  • had not appeared = would not have appeared
  • had not died = would not have died
As I understand it, this is the old subjunctive form that Carey was talking about. This is the first key to the puzzle.

Fitzedward Hall 1881

The first real debunking of Lowth and co's reasoning appeared in a paper published in 1881, in which Fitzedward Hall rejects the idea that had in the expressions had rather and had better are auxiliaries, something which seemed to have confused Lowth and Graham - early versions occurred with a to-infinitive, for example. Secondly he says:
Like ... hebere, avere, haber, avoir, haben, our have, in the natural course of development, came to signify "deem", "hold", "consider", "regard", "rate"; that is to say, originally denoting possession, it grew to be factitive.

On the Origin of "Had rather go" and Analogous or Apparently Analogous Locutions', Fitzedward Hall, published in the American Journal of Phililogy, 1881

So now we have the second key to the puzzle: that have had an additional meaning of hold, deem or consider.

Henry Fowler

Henry Fowler, writing in 1928, also mentions this idea of hold, putting the two keys together:
I had rather is as idiomatic as I would rather; had is the old subjunctive, = I should hold or find, & is used with rather on the analogy of I had liefer = I should hold it dearer.

Modern English Usage, H.W.Fowler, 1928

And talking about had better, he says:
The word had in this phrase (It had better have been done), is not the mere auxiliary of mood or tense, but a true verb meaning find; You had better do it = You would find to have done it better.

Aside #2 - Two oddities

I'd just like to finish by mentioning two constructions which seem to have been strangely absent from the discussion of had rather. The first is that it didn't seem to occur to the objectors that had could have a present reference in hypothetical conditionals, where we are presumably really using a form of the old subjunctive which now happens to be identical to the indicative:

The Praise of Folie, Erasmus et al,

The second is that the discussion is all of had rather being followed by an infinitive, and completely ignores those cases when it is followed by a subject and the 'unreal past':
I had rather he were in jest

The Surprisal, Robert Howard 1700

Aside #3 - Past perfect subjunctive?

There is a theory that we are using a subjunctive when we form past hypothetical (3rd and Mixed) conditionals, but don't realise because it's exactly the same as the indicative. This makes sense to me as:
  • in some Romance languages, for example Spanish, a subjunctive form of Past perfect is used here - Si hubiera ahorrado lo suficiente, habría comprado un coche nuevo - If I'd saved enough, I'd have bought a new car.
  • we can invert had conditionals - Had I saved enough, .... We can't usually do this with indicative. Compare, for example, present / future time hypotheticals:
    • If I was/were to win the lottery, I'd buy a new house
    • Were I to win the lottery, I'd buy a new house.
    • NOT - Was I to win the lottery, I'd buy a new house.
  • if we invert a negative verb, we have to use a full negative, not 'nt - :
    • Had he not told me earlier, ...
    • NOT - Hadn't he told me earlier.
While had rather gradually declined in use, the campaign against had better had virtually no effect.

Further Reading

Unless otherwise stated, these books and articles are at, and are available to read online or download as PDFs or in various E-reader formats


Biographies of the objectors at Wikipedia and elsewhere

Biographies of the defenders at Wikipedia

Periodicals at Wikipedia

Other links

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