Why saying YOU HAD BETTER can sound scary

I've often heard non-native English speakers say something like, "You had better do it." But to a native English speaker, this sounds like a threat!

If better is a positive word, why does the pattern you had better + verb seem scary? 

The reason is that better is comparative (like bigger, stronger, faster, and so on). In this case, the phrase implies that your situation will be better if you do it, and we assume that if you don't do it, something bad will happen!

Here are a few examples:

  • A member of the Yakuza might say, "You had better pay us." Because if you don't, something bad will certainly happen.
  • Your boss might say, "You had better finish this by tomorrow." If so, maybe she's thinking about reporting to her boss that you are under-performing, or maybe she's even thinking about firing you. 
  • My friend might say, "You had better come!"  So if you don't come, he may be angry or sad; maybe he'll unfriend you on Facebook. 

Those previous three examples are rare, you might never hear them (especially the first one, I hope!). However, native English speakers will often say, "I'd better...." This is acceptable because we can use strong language for ourselves and because we know the consequences of our actions. Here are a couple examples: 

  • I'd better study English (or I won't improve!). 
  • I'd better go now, the last train is leaving in just a few minutes (and I don't want to miss it). 

Instead of using "you'd better," in general, just use "should." Your friend will probably say, "You should come!" In the above-mentioned case of the boss, she might be more likely to say, "Please finish this by tomorrow." 

So, next time you hear someone say, "you'd better," I think you'd better be careful! 

unfriend—a modern verb, used for Facebook when a person is removed from one's Friend list. It can also be used positively, to friend a person. 
under-performing—a verb meaning that one's performance is not up to a certain standard.