It's strange that he should say so.

She tiptoed lest the guard should hear her.

It's crucial that she should have her own car.


I've seen those three sentences somewhere on the internet. I found them very unintuitive and quite deceiving, so I've been looking for the explanation, yet did not find one.

If you could explain the usage of "should" in those sentences, I should be very grateful.

  • the first sentence: 'should' is a synonym for 'would', i.e. It's strange that he would say that................ the second sentence: 'should' is a synonym for 'possibly'', i.e. She tiptoed lest the guard possibly hears her............................................................................................................................................ the third sentence: This is just the common usage of 'should', or 'ought to'/'must'.
    – user180089
    Jul 9, 2016 at 23:00
  • 4
    The second and third sentences are typical of British English. In American English, you'd be more likely to hear the main verb in the subjunctive instead: “She tiptoed lest the guard hear her” and “It's crucial that she have her own car”. The first one would have should in both variants. Jul 9, 2016 at 23:14
  • @V0ight I disagree that should is the same as would here.
    – tchrist
    Jul 10, 2016 at 3:44
  • @tchrist ~ I got that definition from #4 here: dictionary.com/browse/should Although I guess the contexts are slightly different. Maybe another paraphrase of the first sentence could be: "It's strange that he thought to say that"
    – user180089
    Jul 10, 2016 at 3:52
  • This should have been three separate questions, for each instance has its own justification. The first assumes that whatever happened had to happen, the second uses should as the past tense of shall, with the meaning of intent, whereas the third seems wrong because the remoteness of should is incompatible with the strength of crucial. For more detail, consult the chapter on shall and will in The King's English. Jul 14, 2017 at 22:42

1 Answer 1


The use of “should” in these cases mirrors the use of the subjunctive in other languages. There is some dispute as to the use of the term “subjunctive” to refer to the alternate form here, formed by copying the infinitive form (and, in principally Commonwealth usage, the prepending of “should”). I have the impression that this comes from Latin, in which the subjunctive was similarly used in certain clauses instead of the indicative, though the subjunctive is also used in other languages. (Grammarians have a certain tendency to emulate Latin; see, for example, complaints about the splitting of infinitives and failure to use the predicate nominative.) The subjunctive is not uncommon in modern usage.¹

Your confusion may arise from the present distribution of the usage of “should”, e.g., “you should go”. The connotation of obligation that (I suspect) causes you to think this use “deceiving” is not entirely alien to the subjunctive; in many modern European (and other) languages, it is standard to use the subjunctive after value judgements (e.g., “it is good that [something happened]”), and, indeed, in British English it is not uncommon to hear “it is [adjective] that [subjunctive]” where the subjunctive uses the modal “should”.

An example of this usage is in a Thames Television report² about a plan for peace in what was then known as Rhodesia, in which the chap references a “proposal that … [inter alia] the UN should come”; verbs such as “to propose” often take the subjunctive. Thus an American might say “I propose that he leave”, a Briton might say “I propose that he should leave”, and either (quite possibly) might say “I propose that he leaves” (this being fairly common in Britain).

The first example is not straightforwardly a value judgement, but may well be, hence the use of the subjunctive. The second expresses fear, and so takes the subjunctive. The third also is a value judgement; cf. the French “il est important qu'il soit”.

¹ An Oxford Dictionaries article on the subjunctive.

² A Thames Television report on proposals to resolve the situation in what was then known as Rhodesia.

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