The Difference: Had Better vs Have to/Must/Should (Modals)

There is a small difference between how we use the semi-modal verb had better compared to other modal verbs like have to/must or should

  • had better = used for strong advice
  • have to = used for strong advice, obligations, and rules
  • must = used for strong advice, obligation, and rules
  • should = used for give advice (not as strong as the words above)

Had better is used to give strong advice. However, had better is only used when there is the threat (risk) of danger if you do not follow the advice. Here are some examples.

Positive sentences

  • You had better brush your teeth. (The danger: If you don’t, may have teeth problems.)
  • You have to brush your teeth. (This is an obligation. It doesn’t suggest a danger.)
  • You must brush your teeth. (This is an obligation. It doesn’t suggest a danger.)
  • You should brush your teeth. (This is just advice. You are saying it would be a good idea.)

Negative Sentences

  • You had better not touch the alligator. (The danger: If you do, it will bite you.)
  • You must not touch the alligator. (This is a rule.)
  • You do not have to touch the alligator. (The modal have to in a negative sentence means something is not necessary (but still an option). It doesn’t make sense here.)
  • You should not touch the alligator. (This is advice)

Because had better is used only when there is a risk of danger, it is not natural to use it when nothing bad will happen if the advice isn’t followed.

  • You had better try this ice cream! It’s delicious. (= Wrong/Unnatural)

This is strange because there’s no risk. If I don’t try it, nothing bad will happen.

Sometimes, it depends on the situation.

John is a bad student. He has poor grades. His teacher can say: “You had better study!” because if John doesn’t, he might fail the course (this is the danger).

Look at the differences here:

Situation #1Paola is cooking a big meal tonight. She wants to invite her friend Melanie, so she says “You had better come to my house for dinner“.

This is a strange. Melanie will say, “Why?? What will happen if I don’t??” There’s no obvious risk in this situation. Melanie may think this sounds like a threat because Paola is suggesting something bad will happen to her if she doesn’t come.

Situation #2Paola is cooking Melanie’s favourite food for dinner tonight. She knows Melanie would be sad if she didn’t get a chance to eat some, so she can say, “Melanie. I’m cooking your favourite dish tonight! You had better come! (Or you’ll miss it!)” 

She can use had better here because Melanie will feel sad if she misses the food. This is the risk/danger.

Important Note: Had Better can be an Indirect Threat

Because had better suggests a threat, it is often used by people who have power (authority). For example, your boss, teacher, or father might say “You had better do this!

The difference between had better and have to

You had better do your work! (If you don’t, you might lose your job.)

If you tell your workmate that she “had better finish her work“, you are giving her an indirect threat. You are saying that something bad will happen (maybe to her) if she doesn’t finish her work. If you don’t know your workmate well, had better can sound bossy/threatening/intimidating.

If you want to give soft advice, use a more tactful phrase like below.

  • You should finish your work. (This is softer, but still a little bossy in Western cultures)
  • You probably should finish your work. (The modal probably makes this phrase softer/more polite)
  • It might be a good idea to finish your work. (The modal ‘might’ makes this phrase softer/more polite)

Grammar Note: Had Better is not the Past!

Had better describes advice for the present or a future event. Even though the helping verb ‘had’ looks like the past tense, it does not describe the past tense. Like the modals should/ought to/must, you cannot use had better in the past tense.

  • I’m sick. I had better go to the doctor. (= Present tense / Correct)
  • I was sick yesterday. I had better go to the doctor. (= Past tense / Incorrect).

For past obligations, change have to into had to.

  • I was sick yesterday. I had to go to the doctor. ( = Have to in the past tense / Correct)

Summary of the Modal Verb Had Better

You can use had better when something bad will happen if the advice isn’t followed. This is usually true when we give advice, but in some cases, there aren’t any bad results if we don’t follow it. In these cases, using had better is not appropriate.

Questions? Find a mistake? Leave a comment below.

– Written by Matthew Barton (copyright) of Englishcurrent.com

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One comment on “The Difference: Had Better vs Have to/Must/Should (Modals)

  1. Mohammad Maruf Uddin (Posted on 5-12-2018 at 22:30) Reply

    This is a first class note and lucid. I love it.

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