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I'm having trouble with should.

The third conditional is fine:

If you had known about the safety hazard at the plant, you should have told someone.

However, for the second conditional I'm running into a mental roadblock. I can't seem to think of any sentence with should that works. If I take an example from a textbook:

If I had her phone number, I would call her.

And then I switch in should:

If I had her phone number, I should call her.

Then it doesn't sound right.

Is there something about the word should that prevents it from being used in the second conditional? Do we replace should with ought to as in

If I had her number, I ought to call her.

If that is true, why does the sentence require to? I don't use ought, so I don't know.

  • In the first sentence, I would have used 'would' rather than 'should' - though it does happen that 'should' is sometimes used. The problem is that 'should' has different meanings. It can mean the same thing as 'would'. But it can imply 'ought to' e.g. Since I knew, I should (ought to) have told someone. When I first read your sentence that is what I first thought it was saying. You may wish to discuss this point before moving on. – WS2 Sep 15 '15 at 9:07
  • @WS2 in the first sentence, the should is for obligation. Would works also but means something different. Now that I have looked at these sentences again and again, they're all starting to look not right. – michael_timofeev Sep 15 '15 at 9:27
  • @WS2 maybe should isn't even correct in the first sentence. – michael_timofeev Sep 15 '15 at 9:28
  • If, by obligation, you mean 'should' means 'ought to' i.e that you had a duty to do something then your sentence is not grammatical. Use of the pluperfect in the if clause would be wrong. It should have been the simple past If you knew about the safety hazard, you should have told someone. – WS2 Sep 15 '15 at 9:58
  • This is a great question. "If I had her phone number, I would/could/might call her" all work. Why not should? – Peter Shor Sep 15 '15 at 14:11
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There are just two ways of using should: one is with the simple infinitive for non-past senses, and the other is with the perfect infinitive for past senses. Those are your only two choices.

Key opposing concepts:

  • simple infinitive versus past infinitive
  • deontic modality versus epistemic modality
  • protasis versus apodosis

Modalities of Modals

Before we show you why, you first need to understand that English does not have numbered conditionals. It looks like you are getting tangled up because you are trying to force English into a model that does not apply to it. Therefore once you banish that mythology from your mind, you will do much better.

Modals have two possible senses, one deontic implying obligation and the other epistemic implying probability. There are many, many, many ways to mix and match these, even when just one modal is involved. That’s because you can use should in either protasis or apodosis, or both, and whether it is in the deontic or epistemic mode can also vary. What does not vary, however, is your choice between a simple infinitive for non-past senses and a perfect infinitive for past senses.

This is the epistemic (=probability) sense in the protasis, which admits inversion in formal registers:

  • If it should rain, you will stay dry.
  • Should it rain, you will stay dry.
  • Should it have rained, you would have stayed dry.

Here is deontic (=obligation) should in both protasis and apodosis:

  • If you should bring a raincoat, I should bring one, too.

That means:

  • If you need to bring a raincoat, then I also need to bring a raincoat.

It is possible to read the previous sentence as containing epistemic (=probability) should in the protasis, making it equivalent to:

  • If you happen to have a raincoat, I ought to bring one.

However, that would be rarely used, being quite stuffy. Note that a deontic (=obligation) should in the protasis does not permit inversion the way an epistemic one does. Whenever you see should involved inversion in the protasis, you know it is epistemic:

  • Should (epistemic) you happen to have a raincoat, you should (deontic) bring one.

That last one used epistemic (=probability) should in the apodosis; so do these:

  • If you will please lend me a raincoat, I should stay dry.
  • If I have a raincoat, I should stay dry.

That sort of should expresses simply probability, not obligation. Using should in the first person in the epistemic mode is uncommon but possible:

  • It you will kindly step this way, I should be delighted to help you.

The deontic sense (=obligation) of should can be found in the following examples, where the simple infinitive is used for non-past senses and the perfect infinitive for past senses:

Simple infinitive:

  • If it were to rain, you should have a raincoat.
  • If it rains, you should have a raincoat.
  • If it rained, you should have a raincoat (with you already).
  • If it has rained, you should have a raincoat.
  • If it may rain, you should have a raincoat.
  • If it might rain, you should have a raincoat.
  • If it shall rain, you should have a raincoat.
  • If you would keep dry, you should have a raincoat.

Perfect infinitive:

  • If it rained, you should have had a raincoat.
  • If it did rain, you should have had a raincoat.
  • If it had rained, you should have had a raincoat.

The reason it works out this way, and therefore the answer to your question, is that there are just two ways of using should: one is with the simple infinitive for non-past senses, and the other is with the perfect infinitive for past senses.

This is nothing strange, because all modals work this way. They are themselves defective, so you cannot in general use them for conveying tense. You need to cast the infinitive they’re governing in the perfect to carry the tense.

  • Tom, thank you. I deeply appreciate the time it took for you to write this. Modals are a big problem for me to teach because the students come to class with so much BS and misinformation (could is only for polite requests, etc.), and the books I am forced to use don't address the real problems they face (listening skills are terrible in English AND their native Chinese so explanation time in class is often a gamble) I am forced to write my own material, so I have to confront my own "black holes" so-to-speak, hence today's plea for help. Modals aren't the only source of trouble in class. – michael_timofeev Sep 15 '15 at 13:20
  • So, if there are no categories for the conditionals, how does one teach this to ESL students? All the books I have teach from the category method and many of the students can't get their head around unreal and real, so a sentence like "you could go to Japan next month," is the same as "you can go to Japan next month." – michael_timofeev Sep 15 '15 at 13:27
  • @michael: that's clearly why ESL teachers invented numbered conditionals. But maybe you should tell them that this is a drastic simplification, so they don't get totally confused when they run into conditionals that can't be classified that way. – Peter Shor Sep 15 '15 at 14:02
  • OK, so just to check my understanding, "If I had taken the train, I should have arrived on time," is correct and an epistemic use of should...? In the phone call example I gave, it should be "If I'd had her phone number, I should have called her." this can be both epistemic and deontic...? – michael_timofeev Sep 15 '15 at 14:03
  • @PeterShor Peter, when I teach stuff, I try my best to keep things tightly controlled, however I am always open to questions, and it's in the Q&A where students ask all of the "Last night on Big Bang Theory this guy said..." that I need to stay sharp. BTW, the Chinese translations for these programs are terrible, and the students think they are learning English by reading the subtitles and listening to the English. Modals are a big source of problems because humor relies on some modals and Chinese handles this differently. – michael_timofeev Sep 15 '15 at 14:10

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