A student sent me this question.
May I ask you a question? It has been confusing me for a long time.
When I want to advise or recommend something to someone, I'm not sure what to say. Probably most Japanese students memorized the expresson "had better~" for advise, and "should" for obligation. But I've heard that it's actually the opposite. So I always hesitate in that situation.
Could you please tell me the proper words or phrases you use when you advise or recommend something? "
So my answer is as follows:
The difference between "had better" and "should"
You are right that most Japanese students have been instructed incorrectly. In an American's mind, when we say a phrase or sentence using 'had better' (Example: "You had better go to bed now.") this is not a suggestion but something that really should be done within a reasonable amount of time, and there might be repercussions if you don’t. "Should" on the other hand is much more relaxed. When an American uses 'should' (Example: "You should go to bed soon.") this means that 'it's probably a good idea, but it's your choice.'
The other choice words for these ideas are ‘need’, ‘ought to’ and ‘must’. ‘Should’ is the most relaxed and common of these, so if you are ever stumped, ‘should’ is probably okay to use.
Ranked in order from Strongest to Weakest, for most Americans they go:
Ought to (this is so similar to ‘should’ though that it can, in most places, be used almost interchangeably with ‘should’ but in my opinion ‘ought to’ sounds more slang, so I prefer to use ‘should’.)
List of example sentences:
“You must go to bed now.” (There is no arguing. Often a parent telling a child to do something or similar situation.)
“You need to go to bed now.” (Also no arguing, but ‘now’ can be a little more flexible. Five minutes from now might be alright. Often used to kids, but can also be used to try and persuade another adult (who you are close to) to do something.)
“You had better go to bed now.” (It’s really something you should do but there won’t be any yelling or anger unless you don’t go to bed for another hour.)
“You should go to bed now.” (It’s probably a good idea.... but our movie is so interesting, so we’ll finish that first.)
“You ought to go to bed now.” (It’s probably a good idea... Eh, nevermind.)
I hope that helps everyone reading this! If it all gets too overwhelming, just use ‘should’ and you will be safe. :)
Thank you to the student who sent that question! I'll be sending you a 50% off coupon for your next Q&A Column question. :)
Until next time!
Edit 6/15: Nagi has written a Tutor's Column that complements this one. His is about Amercan's usage of 'had better.' You can read his column here: http://cafetalk.com/column/read/?id=14641&lang=en