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When ‘should’ means ‘would’

Q: In re-watching Downton Abbey, I’ve noticed that “should” is used in many places where I’d use “would.” For example, “If I were you, I should keep my mouth shut.” It’s very confusing at first to figure out what is meant. How did this usage evolve, and is it still heard in England?

A: We didn’t see that specific example in a search of Downton Abbey transcripts, but here’s a similar use of “should” by Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, from season 4, episode 3, of the TV series:

“If I were to search for logic, I should not look for it among the English upper class.”

In that example, “should” is used as an auxiliary verb to introduce a hypothetical future action, a usage that’s now generally expressed with “would” on both sides of the Atlantic.

The use of “should” for “would” can be confusing because “should” is commonly used to mean “ought to,” and “would” to mean “might.”

Why did Maggie Smith, who played the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey, use “should” in that episode, which is set in the early 1920s?

To answer that, we’ll have to look at an old rule that drew a strict line between the use of “shall” and “will.” Here’s how we describe the rule in a 2011 post:

  • When expressing a future tense, use “shall” with the first person (“I” and “we”) and “will” with the second and third persons (“you,” “he,” “she,” “they,” etc.).
  • When expressing determination, permission, or obligation, use “will” with the first person and “shall” with the second and third persons.

As we note in that post, this so-called traditional rule has been observed more often in the UK than in the US, and the British haven’t been very observant.

John Wallis, an English clergyman and mathematician, introduced the rule in the 17th century in Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae, an English grammar book written (believe it or not) in Latin:

“In primis personis, shall simpliciter praedicentis est; will, quasi promittentis aut minantis / In secundis et tertiis personis, shall promittentis est aut minantis; will simpliciter praedicentis” (“In the first person, shall is simply for predicting, while will is for promising or threatening. / In the second and third persons, shall is for promising or threatening, while will is simply for predicting”).

Wallis applied the rule only to “shall” and “will,” but later usage writers broadened it to require “should” in the first person for future, conditional, and interrogative usages.

In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, not long after the events portrayed in that Downton Abbey episode, Henry W. Fowler writes:

“Plain future or conditional statements & questions in the first person should have shall, should; the roman-type wills and woulds in the following examples are wrong.” Fowler’s no-no’s include “we will teach” … “we will soon be” … “will, I fear” … “we won’t get” … “would be a knave” … “would not” … “we would always get.”

So a dowager countess might very well have used “should” instead of “would” in the early 1920s.

However, Wallis’s old rule for using “shall” and “will,” as well as its expansion to “should” and “would,” has never been widely observed in the US or the UK—except for the use of “shall” in the first person in questions and legal documents.

As Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), says in the latest (2015) version of the usage guide, “It is unlikely that the rule ever had its foundation in real usage, although it may have applied to some people some of the time.”

“The supposed rule is a dead letter in speech, and in most kinds of writing,” Butterfield writes. “It is broadly true that shall and should have largely retreated in the standard language even as used in England. In other English-speaking areas shall and should have been almost totally replaced by will and would, or by the reduced forms I’ll/we’ll. There is not much doubt that will will win, and shall shall lose, in the end.”

[Note, July 23, 2018. A reader in Australia writes: “I have never forgotten our English teacher’s explanation of the difference (London, England, late 1940s). You are on the beach and hear a voice calling out. By paying careful attention to the grammar, you can decide whether or not to enter the surf and risk your own life! ‘I shall drown! And no-one will save me!’ is a plea to be rescued. ‘I will drown, and no-one shall save me!’ is an announcement of firm intent to commit suicide!”

We’ve often come across this old memory aid, which was widely published in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest example we’ve found is more than 200 years old. It’s from a short “filler” item published in the Feb. 4, 1804, issue of the Boston Weekly Magazine: “Difference Between Shall and Will. A Frenchman tumbled overboard, and sang out: ‘I will drown, and nobody shall help me.’ The sailors told him ‘drown and be d—d.’  Had he said, ‘I shall drown, and nobody will help me,’ the sailors would have saved him.”]

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