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In colloquial prose, is there some difference to saying "Should I/we", Shall I/we", "Do I/we" to ask someone's advice?

E.g.

Should I call the police?

Sounds like I'm asking someone (or myself) if I would be well advised to call the police.

Should we call the police?

Sounds like I'm asking someone (or a third party) if we would be well advised to call the police.

Shall I/we call the police?

Sounds like I'm asking someone to decide on whether I/we should call the police.

Do I/we call the police?

Sounds like I'm asking someone if it's necessary I/we call the police (e.g. in case something in the neighborhood doesn't look or feel right to me/us)

Am I right on these ones or are there some other differences I didn't notice?

  • 1
    Why do you think that "Shall I" means "are we required to"? It sounds like you're confusing the legalistic meaning of "shall" with the normal colloquial meaning of "shall". – Peter Shor Mar 5 '14 at 18:25
  • @PeterShor Does it sound any better to you now, Peter? – Elian Mar 5 '14 at 18:36
19

"Shall I?" is an offer. You are poised to take that course of action and are asking if they confirm your decision. It often implies that the speaker is leaning towards the affirmative.

"Do/Should I?" is a request. You are asking what ought to be done. It can be used as above, but does not always indicate the speaker's preferred action and often indicates doubt or ignorance of the proper choice.

  • 3
    +1 But shall I call the police? would not be the usual choice unless there was a question as to *who should call (the implication being someone is going to do it). At least in AE. – bib Mar 5 '14 at 18:54
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    @horatio If I got you right, "Shall I" is just like saying "Would you like me to"; whereas "Do I" and "Should I" approximate to saying "Do you think I should", and both can be used just about interchangeably. – Elian Mar 5 '14 at 19:16
  • @bib: the question is "what is the difference" not "what is more often chosen"? In my personal experience very few people use "shall", but there is a difference in implication nonetheless. – horatio Mar 5 '14 at 19:49
  • @NourishedGourmet: Yes, basically. In your example, I might say that "Shall I?" is more like "I will unless you tell me not to" but tone of voice is going to point out which side of that very narrow divide the speaker is on. When I myself say "Shall[...]?" I have pretty much decided to take a course of action but allowing the other person to veto. – horatio Mar 5 '14 at 19:52
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    Note that as bib pointed out, if spoken emphasis is on "I" you are asking which of the two choices (I/we) is going to do the deed, but without that emphasis, you are offering yourself as the candidate. Either way, the implication is that a choice has been made. – horatio Mar 5 '14 at 19:57
1

For asking advice in American-English in a colloquial context, only "should" sounds good to me.

  • There are two problems with "shall." First, as Horatio says, "shall I" sounds more like an offer than a request. Second, "shall" generally sounds affected to me, and I certainly wouldn't consider it "colloquial" in this context.
  • "Do I/do we" is a possible way of asking this kind of question, but it just doesn't sound as normal to me in your example sentence. Sorry, I don't know how to explain what general principles cover the usage of do vs. should. Here are some examples to try to illustrate what I mean. "Now what do we do?" sounds OK, for some reason. "Do" also sounds natural to me in certain hypothetical/conditional contexts such as "What do I do if he shoots someone?" especially in the context of asking about the steps of a plan (note that plans are often narrated in simple present like this: "First I go up to the front door, then I knock. You stay behind me and keep alert"). If you're just asking for advice about dealing with an actual situation that's already happened or that's currently happening, "Should I..." sounds better to me.

As for I/we, I'd say the difference is pretty much the same as in other contexts. You'd use "we" if you are representing a group that is asking for advice. You'd also use we if you expect that the person you're talking to is going to be taking action with you. If neither of these circumstances hold, use I.

0

Shall I/We- indicates a respectful and staunch request of the speaker, mainly for the other partner's corroboration/confirmation of what is evidently known should/do We/I- indicates necessity and not one's optional choice. It lays more emphasis on what is supposed to be done, what must be done and what is necessary.

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