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My focus here is on the should in the sentence fragment "I should very much like...". Why is it there in place of would? It seems strange that should is used in the subjunctive mood there -- is it grammatical? If the fragment is idiomatic, can anyone explain the history of the idiom?

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I mentioned this in my answer, but it can't hurt to mention that english.stackexchange.com/questions/3/shall-and-will is a probably related question up here, too. –  kitukwfyer Apr 4 '11 at 19:41

5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Great Question! I was intrigued to find the following in NOAD:

As with shall and will, there is confusion about when to use 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.

In spoken and informal contexts, the issue rarely arises, since the distinction is obscured by the use of the contracted forms I'd, we'd, etc. In modern English, uses of should are dominated by the senses relating to obligation (for which would cannot be substituted), as in: you should go out more often, and for related emphatic uses, as in: you should have seen her face!

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Actually should and would do mimic shall and will. Shall implies “command”, and will implies “willingness”.

I can’t command myself; hence, shall emits neutral simple future meaning when used with first persons. But will retains the original meaning with first persons.

Now, since like embodies “willingness”, it is logical to use should like to with first persons.

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Today, this is essentially an artificial prescriptive rule. The (somewhat spurious) argument goes something like this:

  • the modals 'will' and 'shall' once upon a time were lexical verbs that carried a notion of 'willing/wanting' and 'command/obligation' respectively;
  • "therefore", when used as modals to indicate future tense, that future tense "should" be coloured appropriately with whichever "type of future meaning" (willing vs obligation) is most appropriate;
  • and "therefore", the use of 'would' and 'should' "should" also be coloured in a similar way.

For more details, the Fowler brothers dedicate about 20 pages to these arguments in all their glorious spuriosity in "The King's English" and Fowler also dedicates a short amount of space under the 'shall' entry of his Modern English Usage to 'explaining' (although he doesn't really put forward a cohesive argument so much as professes) how the "correct" form is "I should prefer/like etc".

But if you think about it for a moment, the "therefore"s in the above are really non sequiturs. Why on earth "should" the use of a modal auxiliary bear any relation to its use several centuries ago when it was not a modal auxiliary? And why "should" any distinction between 'will' vs 'shall' exactly mimic the distinction between 'would' vs 'should'?

The original premise, that 'will' and 'shall' are originally based on two verbs with distinct meanings, is also not entirely clear. For a start, 'will' appears to be the convergence of two Old English verbs ('willan' and 'willain'). And it's not clear that 'shall' and 'will(an/ain)' had such distinct meanings: even in Old English, it's possible to point to uses where the sense of 'volition' and 'obligation' overlap. (Even 'shall' in its sense of 'owe (money etc)' may imply the notion of 'I will pay you because we have an agreement', i.e. there's a sense of a 'mutual contract' implying both volition and obligation.)

The "rule" appears to have sprung up in the 17th century in works such as Mason's "Grammaire Angloise" (1622). It's not entirely clear whether at the time, the "rule" reflected actual usage, or at least a simplified version of actual usage, or whether it was essentially prescriptive. One thing that the 17th century descriptions have in common is that they present the distinction somewhat succinctly and are possibly oversimplifying for the sake of an educational device. Remarks by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary published in the following century appear to paint a more mixed picture. It's possible that later prescriptivists took the 17th century authors' oversimplification of the situation and assumed them to be more 'absolute' truths. Some studies within the last century have attempted to analyse 17th century usage, notably Fries, 1925 and Hulbert (1947), and reached differing conculsions on the extent to which the "rules" stem from actual usage.

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...While I agree completely that what "shall," "will," and co. used to mean shouldn't decide current use, I think it's going too far to say it's an artificial invention. It's not just some gobbledy gook pulled out of thin air. At worst it's pretentious. I'm more inclined to say it's just one of many, many phrases that for whatever reason don't change and don't go away...Also, is your argument coming straight from Fowler...? Are you paraphrasing...? I have to admit, I'm a little confused by your quotation marks. And the future tense thing. I don't know where you're getting that...(confused). –  kitukwfyer Apr 5 '11 at 5:01
I've updated my answer to explain a bit more thoroughly. Looking at the language today, the distinction is essentially artificial. It's hard to be sure whether the assumed distinction has been artificial all along, or to what extent 17th century descriptions (where the distinction is apparently overtly described for the first time) reflect actual usage. It's true that grammarians like Fowler and his predecessors didn't pluck the distinction "out of thin air", but they may have been plucking it from a previous invention of an artificial distinction, if that makes sense. –  Neil Coffey Apr 5 '11 at 11:09
Ah. Okay. That makes it a lot more convincing (at least for me)....I still don't agree with it's being an artificial invention, but I respect why now. Thanks! –  kitukwfyer Apr 5 '11 at 12:14
Ouch, poor Fowler! A few remarks. 1. Fowler never claimed he was describing how the average Englishman spoke; his starting point was the English used in writing, and in his own circles, which probably represented a tiny part of the population. His guide was intended for a small audience. 2. His advice was not aimed at a 21st-century public: usage has changed tremendously in the meantime, of course. 3. Nor was it aimed at America. ... –  Cerberus Apr 5 '11 at 23:06
... 4. He never claimed to purely describe how people actually wrote: he intended to change the language, into a direction he considered more pleasing. 5. His precepts were aimed at inexperienced writers, not those who already knew how to write, as he clearly says in his preface. For those who wanted to have some simple guidelines, he gave his opinion. Those who felt confident enough were encouraged to deviate from his rules as they saw fit. 6. The pointed manner in which he disapproves of various constructions makes him a good read, as opposed to most other, boring style guides. –  Cerberus Apr 5 '11 at 23:07

Grammatically, once upon a time, will meant want and shall meant something like will.

To be a little clearer saying you "shall" something meant both that you "owed" doing it (or "should" do it in the current sense), and that you were going to do it ("will" in the current sense.) There's a question about shall and will here: 'shall' and 'will'

As I've noted, will has usurped roughly half of what "shall" used to mean.

Similarly, "would" has usurped the place of "should" in many cases. For whatever reason, "should" has clung to its place in the sentence "I should very much like to..." and in that particular sentence "should" retains its former meaning.

...As to why this particular phrase kept its "should," the answer can probably be summarised as "because it did" and a blank stare. I'll be happy to find I'm wrong, though!

Here's a very small, quick reference attesting to the fact that this use isn't unique, just rather obscure, nowadays: http://alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxshallv.html

Also, an etymology of "should": http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=should

And one for "would": http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=would&searchmode=none

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This answer omits the most relevant point (covered in snumpy's answer) that for first person ("I" and "we") "shall" and "should" are traditionally preferred over "will" and "would". –  Colin Fine Apr 5 '11 at 10:34
@Colin Honestly, I've never put much stock in that. I understood the difference in meaning long before someone told me that little rule. Still, I probably should have mentioned it. Thanks for the headsup. –  kitukwfyer Apr 5 '11 at 12:17
It's certainly old fashioned now, though there are still people who say it; but I think it is the nub of this particular question. –  Colin Fine Apr 5 '11 at 14:01

It seems to me that "I should very much like..." is more of a British version. You don't seem to hear it much in the States.

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