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I understand that there is an ellipsis in "It better be", representing "It had better be", but what sort of ellipsis is this? Wiki suggests a number of different examples but none seem to really match in the eyes of this rank amateur.

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It's not an ellipsis, it's the old subjunctive mood, its present tense form (I be, thou beest, he be), used in the optative sense to express a wish or hope. For example, "God save the Queen" uses the same grammatical form ("I hope God saves the Queen")

"It had better be" technically is subjunctive+preterite

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    I think it's an "ellipsis" (or at least a deletion) operating on a sorta-kinda "subjunctive". The subjunctive in the full expression It had better be X is realized on had; the be is simply the plain form of the verb. But when the expression is apocopated to It better be, there really is no tensed verb; it's a fixed idiom unsusceptible to further grammatical analysis, like I got for I have got. However, (also like I got) you occasionally find dialect uses in which be is employed with do-support as if it were an infinitive: *Do he better be careful?" – StoneyB on hiatus May 28 '15 at 14:18
  • Also see en.wiktionary.org/wiki/be#English, section "Archaic conjugation". If it's indeed apocopated from "It'd better be", then it's an interesting coincidence – carsten May 28 '15 at 15:48
  • The sequence [ɾɨdb] in [ɪɾɨd'bɛɾɚ] 'it had better' compresses immediately to simply [b] in rapid speech. Stop+stop clusters almost always decay fast. – jlawler May 28 '15 at 16:05
  • Can you find a single recorded instance of the present subjunctive in such a construction? Better I were is certainly found, with past subjunctive indicating irrealis; but I don't ever recall better I be or I better be written. I am sure that his is indeed an ellipsed form in speech. – Colin Fine May 29 '15 at 0:33
  • @jlawler And that combines with dialectal tendencies to delete or replace auxiliary HAVE: I got rhythm, You been on my mind, See what you done done. – StoneyB on hiatus May 29 '15 at 11:23
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My assumption matches Jlawler's (that phonology is the culprit). Further, I have assumed that the examples cited by StoneyB ("I got rhythm" and "You been on my mind") are the same phenomenon (but perhaps not "You done done", which I would analyze differently).

As far as what grammatical form we're left with after the /d/ is lost, and we have "It better be", my assumption is that "better" then becomes a modal. That would explain why we don't say *"Does he better be careful?". Of course, we also don't say *"Better he be careful?", but I would attribute this (perhaps) to the fact that (perhaps) it's a newer modal whose paradigm hasn't been fully formed yet. Also, some of the other modals seem to be somewhat deficient in this regard as well; "may" can be used for probability or for permission, but I do not recall hearing or reading "May I be there?" for probability -- only for permission.

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  • No inversion of probability "may"?? "May a prime be even?" "May a star's light fluctuations be due to planetary occlusion?" – Greg Lee Jun 23 '15 at 18:31
  • @ Greg Lee: Ah! Good point. I should've added that the grammatical person makes a difference; it appears that for the 3rd person, we can observe some differences in behavior. – Paul L New Jr Jun 23 '15 at 18:50
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I doubt the phonology explanation. My most natural pronunciation of "It better be good" is [ɪʔbɛɾɹbiɡʊd]. If there was a phonemic "had" in there, how could it have disappeared? The first two things to happen in the reduction to a casual speech form would be loss of the "h" of "had" and then flapping the "t" of "it". But once that "t" is flapped, there is no longer any source for the glottal stop that you wind up with.

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  • In my speech, the T in "it" is glottalized. Then in the contraction "It'd better" the D is vulnerable to loss since the next word begins with another stop. Compare "It'd often been that way" in which the D (in my speech) is pronounced, thanks to the next sound being a vowel. – Paul L New Jr Jan 25 '16 at 0:20

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