The dictionary software 'WordWeb', when searched for the word 'lest' shows this as one of the sentence examples under the meaning 'In case' : "he worried lest he should be late."

Now, I have even seen usage of the word in this manner: "He worried lest he be late."

Which of the above is correct, if at all it is a matter of correctness? Or which is better? Or does it not matter at all?

  • 1
    Both are correct, they're just different ways of writing the sentence.
    – Mamta D
    Oct 21, 2015 at 5:00
  • 1
    'He worried lest he be late' is completely fine. You don't say 'lest he was late'. you keep 'was' as 'be'. ...lest she arrive late. ...lest he have to go. pay attention to 'arrive' and 'have to'. And the should in your sentence adds possibility there
    – Grizzly
    Oct 21, 2015 at 5:10

2 Answers 2


Both forms of the sentence work and are understandable. However, the should version is expressing an unlikely situation. That means that it is wrong to be early or on time and that something, somehow is forcing him to not be late.

The shorter, without should version is the likely and ordinary situation. It means that he should not be late and he is worried that he will be late.


Both versions mean exactly the same thing: "He was worried that he might be late."

The second version uses the subjunctive form of the verb "to be," expressing uncertainty or a deviation from reality.

But the subjunctive form of the verb looks identical to the infinitive. So in the first sentence, a modal verb has been added to clarify that it is the subjunctive. (I've actually done the exact same thing in my example sentence above.)

This is a common technique in speech and in writing that is less than extremely formal. "Should" and "would" are commonly used for this, since they're basically permanently in the subjunctive anyway.

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