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Is the following sentence correct to describe a young man?

He should be seventeen.

My colleague was absolutely sure it was correct. I disagreed, so we had a bit of an argument. I would agree on either

He should be seventeen before he. . . .

or

He should be seventeen by now.

If the original sentence (“He should be seventeen.”) is actually correct, what makes it so?

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It certainly seems grammatically correct. –  Joe Z. Feb 22 '13 at 20:47
    
Your question might be a better fit for the English Language Learners Stack Exchange site than here. –  tchrist Feb 24 '13 at 21:31

1 Answer 1

It depends on the context. If someone asked you how old your third cousin is (whom, for example, you rarely see), you could respond with 'He should be seventeen'. Or, if a young lady asked you the appropriate age for a young man to date, you could respond the same. The way you're phrasing it, the statement sounds like a response to a question. You could desciribe someone this way, but it really is a vague description.

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Yes - modals are famously used to convey different meanings. In the first answer the OP sanctions, 'he should be ...' means 'there is a requirement that he be ...'. In the second answer OP sanctions, it means 'by my reckoning, he is very close to being ...'. The initial, debated sentence is a shortened form (of either sense), and, as MDMoore313 implies, requires context (when it becomes quite acceptable). –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 22 '13 at 19:58
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It depends on whether you intend the "deontic" use of should, which refers to weak obligation (You should get that bandage changed), or the "epistemic" use of should, which refers to calculated probability (You should be standing in front of a brass door right now). All modals are ambiguous that way. –  John Lawler Feb 22 '13 at 20:28

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