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I have skimmed through the part on modals of a classic grammar book (Murphy's "Grammar in Use") and picked up all the structures that look strange to me. Could you, please, explain how often they are used and how do they sound in the contemporary British and American English?

[Lately added] This page explains some of the usages: British and Am. English: Differences in usage


1) I should ... / I shouldn't ... to give somebody advice:

—Is it cold? —Yes, I should wear a coat. (It is not a misprint! "I" refers here to another person.)

I shouldn't stay up too late. You'll be tired tomorow.

2) might to ask for permission:

I have finished my work - might I go home?

3) will for present habits:

Every morning I will get up early.

I've tried everything - the car just won't start.

4) Using should after a number of adjectives (strange, odd, funny, typical, interesting etc.):

It's strange that he should be late. He's usually on time.

I was surprised that he should say such a thing.

5) If something should happen ... :

If the situation should change, we'll let you know.

If Tom should phone, tell him I'll call him back later.

6) Begin the sentences from 5) with should:

Should Tom phone, tell him I'll call him back later.

7) It's (about) time ... :

It's time the children were in bed.

It's about time he did something instead of just talking.

8) Needn't and needn't have (done):

Everything will be OK. You needn't worry.

It didn't rain. I needn't have taken the umbrella.

9) might as well for an alternative:

Buses are very expensive - you might as well get a taxi.

10) oughtn't [to] (ought not [to])

You oughtn't to watch scary movies before sleep.

You oughtn't come to me for news, but here's some anyway.

11) shan't (shall not)

I'm goint for a walk. I shan't be late.

He hath promised I shall never want money; and you shan't want money neither, mother.

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You seem to have given a splendid summary of usages! I'd just add that conversationally, the choice in (2) would usually be can (or, more formally, may - might is very formal) {I go home}; the modal is usually dropped from (3a) ((3b would be fine with a dash instead of the comma); (4a) would usually be 'It's strange that he's...'; the modal is often dropped from (5a,b). –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 23 '13 at 9:44
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Very common: 1ab, 3b, 4a, 7ab, 8ab, 9. Fairly common: 4b, 5ab Uncommon: 2, 3a (with this sense rather than stating intent), 6. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 23 '13 at 10:22
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No. There's a hidden (though often overt) extension here: —Is it cold? —Yes, I should wear a coat if I were you. I shouldn't stay up too late if I were you. You'll be tired tomorow. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 23 '13 at 11:17
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As it stands this question is much too broad. This seems to be a long list of separate questions, related only by the cooincidence that they are from the same book. –  MετάEd Jun 23 '13 at 12:34
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What is the "classic grammar book"? If it's good enough to quote, it's good enough to cite. –  John Lawler Jun 23 '13 at 13:30

7 Answers 7

up vote 1 down vote accepted

3) will for present habits:

  • “Every morning I will get up early.”

  • “I’ve tried everything — the car just won’t start.”

There is no question that the verb (or verbs; there may be several) will is one of the very trickiest ones in the English language for foreigners ever to master. The deontic senses are seldom intuitive to a non-native speaker. I strongly advise you to carefully study the OED’s entry for this word’s incredibly many subtle uses.

In this case, your two examples are not of the same thing at all, and you have mischaracterized them. The first uses will to express habitual action; it does not indicate a simple future situation. This is the OED’s sense 8 for this verb:

8. Expressing natural disposition to do something, and hence habitual action: Has the habit, or ‘a way’, of ––ing; is addicted or accustomed to ––ing; habitually does; sometimes connoting ‘may be expected to’

This is related to sense 15, which is still not a simple future, albeit perhaps closer to that:

15. As auxiliary of future expressing a contingent event, or a result to be expected, in a supposed case or under particular conditions (with the condition expressed by a conditional, temporal, or imper. clause, or otherwise implied).

Your second example, the one about the car, is completely different. This corresponds to OED sense 12:

12. With negative, expressing the contrary of senses (def#6), (def#7), (def#10), (def#11): thus commonly = refuse or decline to; emph. insist on or persist in not --ing. Also fig. of a thing. (See also (def#9), (def#13).)

Here, your car is persisting in not starting. It is the figurative sense at the end extending to things, as though they had the will to refuse. The referenced senses 9 and 13 are respectively:

9. Expressing potentiality, capacity, or sufficiency: Can, may, is able to, is capable of --ing; is (large) enough or sufficient to.

15. As auxiliary of future expressing a contingent event, or a result to be expected, in a supposed case or under particular conditions (with the condition expressed by a conditional, temporal, or imper. clause, or otherwise implied).

As I said, will is quite complex. Please study standard reference works regarding its use.

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1) I should / I shouldn't to give somebody advice:

  • “Is it cold?”

    “Yes, I should wear a coat.”

    (It is not a misprint! “I” refers here to another person.)

  • “I shouldn't stay up too late: you'll be tired tomorrow.”

Using “I should” in the first person, corresponding to the present-tense form “I shall”, is of a more formal register than occurs in most pedestrian conversations. The normal exchange is just:

“Is it cold out?”

“Yeah, I’d wear a coat.”

Which neatly avoids the entire question. If you are forced to expand the otherwise-ubiquitous contraction, would becomes the normal form in regular conversion:

“If I were you, I would wear a coat.”

See this wikipedia article for more.

Note however that this form does nonetheless still occur in certain constructions. For example:

“It’s going to be 20 below tonight. Do you think I should wear a coat?”

“I should say so!”

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6) Begin the sentences from 5) with should:

  • Should Tom phone, tell him I’ll call him back later.”

English hypotheticals do not require an if or an unless. Were it not so, you would have been informed of this fact. Should it ever change, we shall send you a cable informing you of the event.

In this instance, you have stumbled upon OED sense 21a for shall.

21 a. In a hypothetical clause relating to the future, should takes the place of shall (indicative or subjunctive), or of the equivalent use of the present tense, when the supposition, though entertained as possible, is viewed as less likely or less welcome than some alternative. (With future, future perf., or imperative in the apodosis.)

Two of the OED’s citations for that sense make clear that this is what they are talking about:

  • 1846 J. Baxter Libr. Pract. Agric. (ed. 4) I. 50
    Should any soluble salt remain it will be soda.
  • 1896 A. Austin England’s Darling i. iii,
    And, should the looked for shock be on us soon, I must be there!

It’s a simple conditional. If you are asking about register, it is a bit formal, but hardly uncommon.

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What does hardly uncommon mean? a) "extremely uncommon" or b) "I wouldn't say it is uncommon" –  Graduate Jul 1 '13 at 6:34
    
Hardly means not at all. –  tchrist Jul 1 '13 at 11:20

2) might to ask for permission:

  • “I have finished my work — might I go home?”

This sort of question may be more apt to elicit a snarky response than a more normally worded question would. For example,

Sure, you might, or you might just stay here until your next shift.

The customary polite request would be:

“I’m done with all my work, so may I please go home?”

That formulation is absolutely unassailable, even by those who would consider this coarse or rude:

“Hey, I’m all done — can I go home now?”

Such individuals as find that sort of request to be an offence against the can–may distinction might snarkily respond:

“Only if your legs are still working.”

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4) Using should after a number of adjectives (strange, odd, funny, typical, interesting etc.):

“It’s strange that he should be late. He’s usually on time.”

“I was surprised that he should say such a thing.”

If you think the OED’s entry for will is long, you should see its entry for shall, wherein these senses are clearly explained.

What you have here is a modal use that in many other European languages would demand the subjunctive mood, a term sometimes used for similar situations in English. It corresponds to primary group 3 from the OED entry for shall:

3. The past tense should with modal function.

As with other auxiliaries, the pa. t. (orig. subjunctive) of shall is often used to express, not a reference to past time, but a modal qualification of the notion expressed by the present tense. Where in addition the notion of past time is to be expressed, this can often be effected by the use of the perf. instead of the pres. inf. (though sometimes this produces ambiguity); the temporal notion may however be merely contextually implied, and in that case the pa. t. has the appearance of having both functions (temporal and modal) at once.

There are many senses given here; I shall only summarize.

18. a. In statements of duty, obligation, or propriety (originally, as applicable to hypothetical conditions not regarded as real). Also, in statements of expectation, likelihood, prediction, etc.

19. In the apodosis of a hypothetical proposition (expressed or implied), indicating that the supposition, and therefore its consequence, is unreal.

21. a. In a hypothetical clause relating to the future, should takes the place of shall (indicative or subjunctive), or of the equivalent use of the present tense, when the supposition, though entertained as possible, is viewed as less likely or less welcome than some alternative. (With future, future perf., or imperative in the apodosis.)

But the most applicable sense is the various subsenses under sense 22:

22. In a noun-clause (normally introduced by that).

  • a. In dependence on expressions of will, desire, command, advice, request.

  • b. In statements relating to the necessity, justice, propriety, etc. of something contemplated as future, or as an abstract supposition.

  • c. In expressions of surprise or its absence, approval or disapproval, of some present or past fact.

  • d. In clause dependent on sentence (negative, interrogative, or hypothetical) expressing possibility, probability, or expectation.

  • e. In clause (now almost always with lest) expressing the object of fear or precaution.

I believe that your examples correspond exactly to sense 22. c., expressions of surprise over some present or past fact.

Again, any decent reference work on English should cover all these things perfectly well.

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5) If something should happen :

  • “If the situation should change, we’ll let you know.”

  • “If Tom should phone, tell him I’ll call him back later.”

These corresponds to the OED sense 20 for shall.

20. In a hypothetical clause expressing a rejected supposition.

  • a. Where should has notional force = ‘were obliged to’, ‘must’, ‘were about to’. Often with ellipsis of if after as.

  • b. Where the future tense (or the present with future import) would be used if the supposition were entertained. (With pa. t. subjunctive, usually should or would, also could, might, arch. were, etc., in the apodosis. Cf. (def#21).) Now somewhat rare, mod. usage preferring were to.

The examples under that entry clearly show that this is the operative sense for your examples. They are perfectly fine, although a bit formal or literary, perhaps even affected in some situations. In most conversational flavors of English, the simple present replaces the modal hypothetical.

  • “If the situation changes, we’ll let you know.”
  • “If Tom phones, tell him I’ll call him back later.”
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I will answer this from an American English (AmE) perspective because I think the BrE one will be different in some instances).

Also I am rewriting some of the examples ever so slightly so that they make more pragmatic sense as is.

  • You should ... / You shouldn't ... to give somebody advice:

—Is it cold? —Yes, I should wear a coat.

I shouldn't stay up too late. You'll be tired tomorrow.

This is very uncommon in AmE to say "I shouldn't do X" to mean "If I were you, I wouldn't do X". It is very BrE sounding to me.

If one were to change the pronoun to 'you' (e.g. "You shouldn't stay up late") it becomes very natural and common AmE.

  • might to ask for permission:

I have finished my work - might I go home?

This is rare in AmE. The preferred usage is

Can I go home?

  • will for present habits:

Every morning I will get up early.

I've tried everything - the car just won't start.

This positive version is not a 'present' usage of 'will'. The preferred usage is:

Every morning I get up early

That is, no modal.The negative version, on the other hand, is common.

  • Using should after a number of adjectives (strange, odd, funny, typical, interesting etc.):

It's strange that he should be late. He's usually on time.

I was surprised that he should say such a thing.

Both are slightly strange inn AmE. Preferred usage is 'is late' or 'would say'

  • If something should happen ... :

If the situation should change, we'll let you know.

If Tom should phone, tell him I'll call him back later.

These sound fine but more common is the plain present

If Tom phones ...

  • Begin the sentences from 5) with should:

Should Tom phone, tell him I'll call him back later.

This is fine in writing but not really common in speech.

  • It's (about) time ... :

It's time the children were in bed.

It's about time he did something instead of just talking.

This is not a modal as far as I can tell. It's subjunctive which is going out of favor.

  • Needn't and needn't have (done):

Everything will be OK. You needn't worry.

It didn't rain. I needn't have taken the umbrella.

'need' as a modal is rare in AmE. 'should' works in its place.

  • might as well for an alternative:

Buses are very expensive - you might as well get a taxi.

Common in AmE.

  • oughtn't [to] (ought not [to])

You oughtn't to watch scary movies before sleep.

You oughtn't come to me for news, but here's some anyway.

Sounds very BrE; not used in AmE at all.

  • shan't (shall not)

I'm going for a walk. I shan't be late.

He hath promised I shall never want money; and you shan't want money neither, mother.

Does not exist at all in AmE. 'Shall' can be translated by 'will'. I won't be late, I will never want money. By the way, 'hath' doesn't exist in AmE or BrE.

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What about using "oughtn't"? –  Graduate Jun 24 '13 at 20:41
    
Mitch, you changed the structure #1, it is "I should wear a coat." to give somebody advice. Yes, with "I". "I shouldn't stay up too late. You'll be tired tomorrow." = I give advice to somebody not to stay late. (It's confusing, that's why I put this structure at the top.) –  Graduate Jun 24 '13 at 20:52
    
re I/you...oh OK, yes I asked before and you explained, but I didn't forgot and reworded according to my first reading. That shows me that the reading you asked for is not natural to me (in AmE). I'll edit to reflect. –  Mitch Jun 24 '13 at 21:49
    
re "oughtn't": sure I'll answer that if you add it to the list in your question! Add example sentences and I'll respond. –  Mitch Jun 24 '13 at 21:54
    
I have added a question for oughtn't (10) as well as for shan't (11). It would be good to get an answer from a BrEN speaker. –  Graduate Jun 24 '13 at 22:15

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