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Looking at the dictionary, I read that should has origin as past tense of shall. In the modern English, is should ever used as past tense of shall?

ORIGIN Old English sceolde: past of shall.

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shall is not a verb, it's an auxiliary. How can it even have a past tense? –  Noldorin Jan 26 '11 at 10:13
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@Noldorin: Modal verbs have present and past tenses. "I will go tomorrow", but "Last week I said that I would go the next day". –  Kosmonaut Jan 28 '11 at 19:03
    
@Kosmonaut: They're pseudo-tenses, not real tenses. –  Noldorin Jan 28 '11 at 21:48
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@Noldorin: I'm not familiar with the concept of a "pseudo-tense". –  Kosmonaut Jan 28 '11 at 22:50
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@Noldorin: It is technically not a tense according to what criteria? –  Kosmonaut Jan 29 '11 at 18:21

2 Answers 2

up vote 17 down vote accepted

should is the preterite form of the modal verb whose present form is shall. As such, should can be (and is still) used in the past tense, in places where shall would be used in the present tense.

Two examples:

  • “It is time, we shall proceed” can be reported as “he said it was time, we should proceed”.
  • “I think it shall be okay” and “I thought it should be okay”

Other modal verbs that follow the same pattern are will/would, may/might and can/could.

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Right. I think the only thing that might make it hard (for an American) to think of should as the past tense of shall would be the fact that Americans don't really ever use the word shall at all. So we wouldn't generally be converting it to past tense either. But I imagine that people still actively do this in the UK. –  Kosmonaut Jan 28 '11 at 19:05
    
You don't use shall in oral language, but it's still used in normative, legislative, judicial and lots of other written styles. Things like “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” (dated, I admit), or “Any balance to the credit of the designated beneficiary shall be ...” (excerpt from recent IRS document) or others –  F'x Jan 28 '11 at 19:16
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I use “shall” orally if infrequently. –  Ashley Jan 29 '11 at 4:57

should is the preterite form of the modal verb whose present form is shall. As such, should can be (and is still) used in the past tense, in places where shall would be used in the present tense.

Two examples:

“It is time, we shall proceed” can be reported as “he said it was time, we should proceed”. “I think it shall be okay” and “I thought it should be okay” Other modal verbs that follow the same pattern are will/would, may/might and can/could.

Giving examples of reported speech doesn't illustrate that modal verbs have tense. The backshift to the Historical past tense forms, of modals, that only sometimes occurs doesn't express a true tense shift. It only tells those in our speaking/writing audience, that by making this replacement, that we are not directly quoting what the original speaker said.

If this was actually a true shift in tense, we wouldn't be able to quote someone directly because that important tense/time shift wouldn't show up and there would be considerable misunderstanding.

Let's look at an example:

Charles: I need some paper.

Brett: What did Charles say?

Jane: He said that he needed some paper.

When Jane used 'needed', the past tense form of 'need', she wasn't saying that the need has disappeared, that the need has been met, that Charles no longer needs paper. Using the past tense FORM is just a signal, not the actual shift that we see when an event is actually finished.

Jane: He said that he needed some paper but he got some from Art, so he doesn't need any now.

Noldorin is at least partially correct. Modals are a special class of verbs which carry various modal meanings into sentences.

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