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“Should” versus “would”

In Spring 1936, Evelyn Waugh sent a marriage proposal to Laura Herbert, in which he wrote:


On the other hand I think I could… reform & become quite strict about not getting drunk and I am pretty sure I should be faithful.


Emphasis mine, of course. Now, when I read this, given its context in the rest of the letter and having seen and read films and plays from the period, I am confident in interpreting it not as meaning I'm pretty sure that it would be right for me to be faithful, but rather I'm pretty sure that I can be/will be faithful. In today's English it is very unusual to see the word should used in this way; the word would might be used with the same or very similar meaning as should has in the above quote.

Oxford Dictionaries Online gives a compatible meaning for the third definition of should:

3, formal expressing the conditional mood:

  • (in the first person) indicating the consequence of an imagined event:

    if I were to obey my first impulse, I should spend my days writing letters

  • referring to a possible event or situation:

    if you should change your mind, I’ll be at the hotel should anyone arrive late, admission is likely to be refused

Any interesting thoughts or information on the history of the word would be appreciated but I imagine that's too open a request to be valid as the primary question, so I'll ask over what period was this use of should common?

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@FumbleFingers I don’t think it’s a duplicate. "Should" versus "would" is about meaning. This question is about the history of usage. –  Pitarou Feb 26 '12 at 4:06
For the general history, see Cerberus's stellar answere to Why do we say “was supposed to” for “should have”?. If you want specific dates you'll have a problem; Waugh's usage was a bit dated/formal even in 1936, but it can still turn up today. –  FumbleFingers Feb 26 '12 at 12:17
I don't think this is a duplicate, but I also don't think I'll get a better answer than that linked above. Someone can close as a dup if they wish. –  John Bartholomew Feb 26 '12 at 12:35
Yeah - personally I think Cerberus's answer on the link is the best I've ever seen here on ELU. As he himself says, the issue is complicated, but I genuinely felt I'd learnt something by reading what he had to say there. –  FumbleFingers Feb 26 '12 at 13:39
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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, John Bartholomew, kiamlaluno, Mitch, Daniel Mar 7 '12 at 14:21

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

I don't know when it was common, but the OED has this as sense 14. c., where 14. says, "used in indirect reported utterances, or other statements relating to past time, where shall would be used if the time referred to were present," and c. has "in conditional and temporal clauses, clauses of purpose, and relative clauses with conditional or final implication." Examples begin with Beowulf (Old English) and extend up to 1902. More recent examples can be found, as the question shows. So even if it hasn't always been common, it has been a feature of English for as long as we have written records.

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There's a slight implication of conditionality in Waugh's usage (which doesn't strike me as particularly odd, though I do see it as a bit dated and/or formal). I think there's also an element of hesitancy/diffidence. A quick scan of some results in Google Books for "I should like to say" and "I would like to say" gives me the distinct impression the former is much more likely to be used in passages where the speaker also says other things indicating awkwardness, a degree of deference to his audience, etc. –  FumbleFingers Feb 27 '12 at 1:07
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