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“I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

In the sentence above, if I change "I should like" to "I would like", will there be a noticeable difference in the meaning or nuance?

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No, there would be no difference in meaning. Use of should instead of would in this context (especially in this context, I would say) indicates (a) UK speech and (b) a high formal register, neither of which affects meaning, because they're pragmatic and sociolinguistic effects, not semantic. –  John Lawler Jan 29 '13 at 18:49
    
Ngrams shows that "I should like" is being replaced by "I would like" both in the U.K. and in the U.S., but in the U.S., the process is quite a bit more advanced. When Tolkien was writing, this was the correct formal expression in both countries. –  Peter Shor Jan 29 '13 at 19:17
    
Bilbo must have attended a school in the UK. –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 29 '13 at 19:34
    
@EdwinAshworth Or maybe Bilbo was an aide to Dwight D Eisenhower, who a story claims once sacked an aide for not using shall, should, will & would "correctly". He certainly did use it in a more British style. –  Jon Hanna Jan 29 '13 at 21:05
    
Thank you all for your insightful answers. I suspected that there was no difference, but I wanted to hear you all say so. –  Rod Rook Jan 29 '13 at 22:13

2 Answers 2

In the sentence above, if I change "I should like" to "I would like", will there be a noticeable difference in the meaning or nuance?

There would be three differences in nuance, based on:

  1. The character, and indeed his entire culture, is meant to be quite old-fashioned in many ways, even within the context of the story.
  2. Though failing to do so (the joke went flat and struck many there as rude, if I remember the story right) he was aiming at polite speech, in a moderately formal register.
  3. The character is a member of a culture that the author based on all he felt was good about rural England.

Each of these impressions are helped by the choice of should over would in a few different contexts being more often made in the past, than now, in England, than elsewhere, and in it being considered the more polite expression by some.

The association with politeness can led to anxiety in certain quarters, and those with nationality have meant that there were complaints about how the Scots and Irish failed to use it correctly in the days when the expense of trans-Atlantic travel meant one would rarely have the opportunity to complain about it in Americans.

Luckily, it being seen as old fashioned means we need worry less. (Though not that old fashioned, you wouldn't see Chaucer use it).

Fowler described the usage of southern Englishmen as so complicated that nobody not born to it could hope to understand it.

A common rule suggested, is that in the cases where either can be used, then normally shall/should is used in the first person and will/would in the second and third, unless one wants to stress particular determination in which case this is reversed.

And if we believe that, we have to believe that Churchill wasn't particularly determined when he said "We shall fight them on the beaches" and would have taken military defeat with philosophical calm.

Those of us who use it, tend to do use shall or should in places where will or would could serve, tend to do so inconsitently and idiosyncratically, as a result of having had teachers, parents and books making inconsistent and oft-times idiosyncratic attempts to teach us the proper way to do something no-one was sure of the proper way of.

Really, you will fare fine using would and will in such cases. Unless perhaps if you are writing fiction (Bilbo should totally use should that way, a hard-bitten cyberpunk detective in 23rd Century Kyoto, not so much). If nothing else, ambiguous uses can be worse with should:

In his sermon, the priest said we should all sin a lot over the course of our lives.

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Thank you all for your insightful answers. I suspected that there was no difference, but I wanted to hear you all say so. –  Rod Rook Jan 29 '13 at 22:08

Tolkien was using the preterite modal should in the first person, parallelling using the present-modal shall in the same situation.

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