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The NOAD reports the following notes about should and would:

The traditional rule is that should is used with first person pronouns (I and we), as in I said I should be late, and would is used with second and third persons (you, he, she, it, they), as in you didn't say you would be late. In practice, however, would is normally used instead of should in reported speech and conditional clauses: I said I would be late; if we had known, we would have invited her.

I thought that should and would really had a slightly different meaning. Am I wrong?

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Not an answer but I seem to remember being taught the future, conditional and imperative cases for "would" and "should". Just wish I could remember what they were. We were told that it is very important in legal documents. –  margaret gulliver Feb 20 at 0:10
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3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Smirkingman's answer is right but unhelpful. There are historically two different uses of "should", and kiamaluno is asking about the other one.

In older works you will find writers generally use "I/we should" where today most of us would write (and say) "I/we would", i.e. without any sense of obligation.

This is separate from the obligatory sense that smirkingman describes, and has no meaning different from "would".

There is a parallel with "shall" and "will" (and historically, "should" and "would" were the past tense of these): "Shall" has a sense of command - little used in speech today, but very much alive in legal documents and technical specifications; but for speakers of many varieties of English it is quite normal to say "I shall" as an alternative to "I will". For me at least "Shall I?" is the normal question form: I would only say "Will I?" when asking for a prediction.

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+! for "shall" in legal and technical documents –  John Satta Jan 26 '11 at 11:56
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The trouble here is that should has many meanings depending on the context.

  • It can imply obligation

    You should check your oil level.

  • It can imply probability

    He should have finished checking the oil level by now.

  • It can represent a condition

    If I should run out of oil, what then?

  • It is the past tense of shall

    I told him he should have checked his oil level.

Nowadays, as your NOAD quote says, would is used where should used to be.

Consider "I should like a new car." This is valid but sounds old-fashioned. Here the use of should implies a kind of politeness: you're not presuming that you deserve a new car. Nowadays you'd more likely hear "I would like a new car" or the contracted "I'd like a new car."

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I guess that would doesn't imply obligation. I would not say you would check your oil level. I also give to I would not say that a different meaning than to I should not say that. –  kiamlaluno Jan 26 '11 at 12:25
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'should' implies that a constraint or obligation is anticipated:

I said I should be late.

It implies that there is something inhibiting my being on time or that I'll deliberately choose to be late.

'would' implies a degree of certainty:

I said I would be late.

I'm going to be late and that's it.

'could' implies possibility:

I said I could be late.

I'll try to be on time, but something might happen to prevent me.

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I'm not sure about 'should' implying something inhibiting you in the context of being late, that fits 'could' much better. However, if you change the sentence to 'I should be on time', it makes sense. –  user3444 Jan 26 '11 at 11:11
    
@elendil agree usually, but I was thinking of the construction "I said I should be late (you know what Anna's like, she always got some last-minute thing to solve)" = I foresee that Anna will delay my leaving a preceding engagement. –  smirkingman Jan 26 '11 at 11:17
    
Surely that would be 'I said I would be late'? nowadays? In other words, I said I would definitely be late given a delaying factor. The problem here is that 'should' has so many meanings: 'ought to', likelihood, past tense shall, a consequence etc. EDIT: In fact, the NOAD entry quoted above says just that: should is traditional with 'I' and 'we', would is more modern. –  user3444 Jan 26 '11 at 11:24
    
@elendil Indeed, but I'm OLD >;-) –  smirkingman Jan 26 '11 at 13:01
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