Grammar We’d Rather Avoid: Variations with ‘Would Rather’

In a recent YouTube video I decided to take upper level students through the different uses of the modal verb would. I know some people would rather spend thirty minutes in the dentist’s chair than endure a fifteen-minute grammar lesson, so to make the review more engaging, I used a countdown of my top ten favorite romantic comedies to illustrate the target grammar.

When I hit number four on my list, Strictly Ballroom (1992), I ran up against my own doubt. If you don’t know the basic story line, then I’ll tell that a young man is fed up with the confines of strict ballroom dancing. He’d rather break the rules and dance to express himself than follow the rules and win more competitions. As I was filming, I found myself going back and forth between two variations:

His mother would rather he dance by the rules.
His mother would rather he danced by the rules.

Grammar textbooks and reputable online sites, including learner’s dictionaries, will tell you “danced” must be used. However, the very first time I spoke to the camera, the base verb “dance” came out of my mouth. Hmm. 

For my video review, I decided to go with prescriptive grammar and I used “danced.” However, I promised in the comments that I would follow up with alternative ways to express a desire concerning others. Since then, I’ve been studying more examples. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are few examples of “would rather” referring to another person’s actions. The few sentences listed used:
(person 1) would rather (person 2) + base verb
As in, his mother would rather he dance by the rules.

We could debate why this is so, but I don’t think it’s of great significance. Arguably, “danced” is the past subjunctive, which we know is often employed in unreal statements. If the son is already breaking the rules and the mother doesn’t like this, then her preference is clear: she’d rather he danced by the rules. Perhaps use of the base verb brings the statement closer to a likely future: “I’d rather you dance by the rules in tomorrow’s competition.” I can’t find any confirmation of this reasoning, so I’m left to believe that (1) either verb form communicates the subject’s desire and (2) both verb forms are understood in American English.

The truth is we use “would rather” much more frequently to talk about one’s own preferences and not what we want others to do. Only a negative statement with “didn’t” easily rolls off my tongue: I’d rather you didn’t. So what alternatives do we use when we want someone to do something or not do something? There are several other options, ranging from a polite request to a complaint uttered in complete frustration:

1. Would prefer it if… 
I’d prefer it if you danced like the others.
I’d prefer it if you didn’t try to openly break the rules.

2. Wish…
I wish you’d just follow the rules.
I wish you would stop this nonsense.

3. Would you mind….
Would you mind listening to me for once?
Would you mind not criticizing me so much?

4. Imperatives (possibly with a tag question).
Just follow the rules, will you?
Please don’t cause a scene tonight.

5. Do you have to…? Must you…?
Do you have to break every rule in the book?
Must you be so rebellious?

While the easiest choice seems to be teaching “would rather” + simple past when saying what we want others to do, I don’t think that’s the explanation that would serve students best. They need to understand more about usage, mainly:
– It’s more common to use “would rather” when referring to ourselves.
– American English speakers use both the simple past and the base verb when “would rather” refers to what we want others to do. (And I’d avoid off-putting terminology. If past subjunctive and present subjunctive are a mouthful, stick to what students know: simple past, past tense form, base verb, bare infinitive, etc.)
– There are conversational alternatives, such as would prefer it and wish and these verbs consistently pair with the past tense forms (technically, the past subjunctive).

What are your thoughts on the use of would rather? Would you rather not teach any variations? (wink wink)


Photo credit: Dandelion, Blowing, Weed, Wish, Nature by Dawn Howeth. Retrieved from the Public Domain at

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