I was just answering this question. It is about a use of "should". The word seems to have undergone a semantic shift away from a simple first-person form of "would". Instead it is today most often limited to expressing an obligation or expectation, to a degree that the old use is now prone to misunderstandings.

Are there other changes of this speed and degree or is such a quick change rather uncommon?

Edit: "should/would" was only an example. The question is aiming at changes in the language which happened so fast and are so profound that fairly recent, mid-20th century texts can be misunderstood.

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    Should has had this sense of obligation or expectation for many hundreds of years. It is not a new development. – TRomano Feb 19 '16 at 12:06
  • @TimRomano I probably didn't express myself clearly enough.The use of "should" is now more limited to indicating an obligation etc,; I didn't mean tthat this is a new use. But the traditional use of simple "first person would" is almost extinct, maybe with a few pockets in the British nobility remaining. (Oh, and it was only an example for the general idea of changes I wondered about; the dabate about "should" is in theother thread.) – Peter - Reinstate Monica Feb 19 '16 at 12:12
  • Have a look at other posts here on the modals (should, would ...) to see that modals are bewilderingly polysemous. // 'Wicked', 'gay' (= 'silly, amongst other things), 'nice' ... there are many fairly recent examples of semantic shifts. Books on neologisms usually include many of these. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '16 at 12:14
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    A fairly trivial example, but I can remember 'hopefully' - in the sense of 'it is to be hoped that ...' arriving in British speech. Before the 1960s [I believe] it was used only in the sense of 'in hope', as in 'It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.' But once it arrived, it spread rapidly, despite grumbling letters to newspapers. – David Garner Feb 19 '16 at 16:03
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    Should/would shifting is trivial compared to can/can't. :) – Lawrence Feb 20 '16 at 4:30

Actually it is the other way round. "Shall" and its past "should" is originally a modal verb expressing obligation as in

  • You shall not kill. (Bible)

or recommendation as in

  • You should stop smoking.

Will/would is orginially a verb expressing volition and is also used as auxiliary for future and conditional. This second use can be explained this way: If you will do sth meaning want to do sth (volition) the normal consequence is that you will (future) do it.

As to the first person, "I will do it" is ambiguous as it can express volition or future. To avoid this ambiguity "I/we shall do it" was used to express future. By the way Dutch uses zullan (German sollen, English shall) as auxiliary for future in all three persons.

  • No; the shift away from 'shall / will / will' // 'should / would / would', as used in the sense OP mentions, has also occurred (though his question would be better edited). But this is an edit, not an answer. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '16 at 12:18
  • @EdwinAshworth - I have in the back of my head that shall/will/will ... is the simple future (including polite expectation that events will happen in this way), and will/shall/shall/... is obligation/reinforced certainty/coercion. Have I been dreaming or is this a way of understanding this? – Dan Feb 19 '16 at 17:47
  • @Dan I remember reading it once, about 45 years ago. But I've read a lot more about 'will', 'shall' etc since then, and this strange conjugation may now be considered obsolete or near-obsolete. But the modals have many and complex usages, as a search on ELU will confirm. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '16 at 19:51
  • will to do sth is not the same as will do sth. I think your answer is confusing a little. – NVZ Feb 20 '16 at 12:46
  • @NVZ - I don't see that I have written somewhere "will to do it". – rogermue Feb 20 '16 at 13:10

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