Prompted by What does 'should' mean in this sentence?, instead of asking what it means, I'm interested in what part of speech it is.

The sentence is:

She walked through the forest, and who should she see, but the Big Bad Wolf

Should is being used to mean did in this sentence, which is an unusual use for should.

The general form seems to be:

[Interrogative] should [event] but [...]

(But is replaceable by except, only, etc.)

Is this a subjunctive? Is it a vestige from Old English?

  • Is this just an alternative use/definition of the word "should"? I don't think "who should she see" and "she should see" are using the same "word" in the sense that one is a form of the other. But this isn't really my area.
    – MrHen
    Mar 23, 2011 at 18:57
  • 3
    I think this usage comes from the subjunctive form: "If such should happen, we would be ready." When used in the subjunctive form, it gives the sense of chance or possibility. So it's not far from there to use it as a helping verb that also implies that the thing happened by chance.
    – JCooper
    Mar 25, 2011 at 15:19
  • 1
    I don't know, but it definitely has that fairy tale feel to it.
    – Hugo
    Oct 7, 2011 at 18:32
  • 1
    To me it seems much more like a vestige of oral poetry and storytelling culture. The question-like phrase piques the interest of the audience but leaves no room for interruption of the narrative. It would also allow for a dramatic pause: "And who should she see(?)... but the big bad wolf!" The should may even be a reference to the story's set form - there is only one character that she's to see.
    – user13141
    Oct 8, 2011 at 7:16
  • 2
    As an addendum, a similar usage can be seen in the Odyssey: "Then they made the ship fast a little way out, came on shore again, got their suppers, and waited till night should fall." In ordinary speech, we would obviously say "night did fall" or "night fell". Granted, this was the translator's choice, but it seems relevant that it was chosen to convey the mood of such a story.
    – user13141
    Oct 8, 2011 at 7:25

4 Answers 4


This seems to be OED sense 17 for "shall":

17. In questions introduced by who, whom, what, and followed by but, serving to express the unexpectedness of some past occurrence.

1626 Bp. J. Hall Contempl. VIII. O.T. xxi. 459 Whiles his hart is taken vp with these thoughts, who should come ruffling by him, but‥Haman.
1832 Tennyson May Queen iv, in Poems (new ed.) 91 As I came up the valley whom think ye should I see, But Robin?
1842 R. Browning Pied Piper iv, Just as he said this, what should hap At the chamber door but a gentle tap?
1945 R. Gibbings Lovely is Lee xxvii. 133 On the 23rd of March 1889 who should be born in Cork but myself?

Since the earliest citation is 1626, it does not seem to be a vestige from Old English.

The answer to "what is the part of speech?" is "modal".

  • 2
    I think that’s right. ‘Should’ is a modal verb, and it is certainly not subjunctive. As the ‘Cambridge Grammar of English’ says ‘ “Should” is also used for events which did happen but to which the speaker reacts with surprise or disbelief.’ Oct 9, 2011 at 15:15
  • I'm afraid I can refer you only to the book itself on Amazon: amazon.co.uk/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Paperback-Comprehensive/…. (That's the UK site. It's also on the US one.) Oct 10, 2011 at 14:06
  • @Barrie England : thanks for that - looks like I'll have to get an Amazon account!
    – cindi
    Oct 10, 2011 at 14:22
  • I think my example from the Odyssey above (as a comment to the original questions) shows that should used in this way isn't necessarily about surprise. Sunset is about as anticipated as it gets.
    – user13141
    Oct 10, 2011 at 18:18
  • onomatomaniak, your example from the Odyssey isn't the same structure as the structure in the original question. The question is about "should" used in an interrogative structure, introduced by "who, whom, what", and followed by "but".
    – morphail
    Oct 10, 2011 at 23:08

It is used here as an auxiliary verb.

  • 4
    @cindi: An idea of relative ordering is not a reason for down-voting. From the faq: "As you see new answers to your question, vote up the helpful ones by clicking the upward pointing arrow to the left of the answer." If you deem this answer correct (which it is), it is therefore helpful and not worthy of a down-vote.
    – Robusto
    Oct 10, 2011 at 11:59

Yes, it's an alternative use of the word "should". You might read "Who should she see but the Big Bad Wolf" as "She was surprised to see the Big Bad Wolf".


Short answer

Here, should is a modal auxiliary verb.


English word order is normally SVO (Subject-Verb-Object). Under some circumstances (including that phrase), the order changes to VSO, in a syntactic phenomenon called inversion. In this case, it seems to be triggered by wh-movement of who, the object of see, to the start of the phrase.

Note that it is the subject and the auxiliary verb that get flipped; the main verb will not move. To see why, I find it simplest to treat the auxiliary as the syntactic head, and analyze the main semantic verb "see..." as the object of should. (Aside: this phenomenon of verb-initial word order in questions is common to many European languages. However, it is no longer productive in English, and is now used almost exclusively with auxiliary verbs!)

The original phrase is:

who should she see but the Big Bad Wolf

Now find the underlying phrase that generates this using that transformation:

*she should (see (who but the Big Bad Wolf))

Now, to determine the lexical class of should, let's look at the un-transformed phrase. If the ungrammaticality of the untransformed phrase bothers you, it may help to replace some of the words:

she did (see (someone like the Big Bad Wolf))

In this case, should is in precisely the same lexical class as did would be. Both are auxiliary verbs. Specifically, should is a modal auxiliary verb, because it is used to indicate modality.

  • Thanks @Mechanical snail, there are lots of interesting links for me to explore here!
    – cindi
    Oct 11, 2011 at 8:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.