I am confused with the usage of 'should'. For example, when I want to give advice to another person, I feel that it is not polite to say "you should XX" and I would like to add 'maybe', just to make the tone softer, milder. Is it true that "you should " is more appropriate than "you can"? how to give advice politely?

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  • If it is merely advice, perhaps 'you may' or 'you could' is more polite. However, if you also really want the other person to follow such advice (because of your empathy for that person) 'you should' or 'you must' seems fine. – We oath to creation Aug 2 '16 at 18:56
  • 1
    This question isn't really about language, but about manners. – Colin Fine Aug 2 '16 at 19:31
  • Volunteering to someone they "should" do something runs a risk of raising their hackles. What your are essentially saying is that you (the speaker) are a competent adult, and the person you are speaking to is not a competent adult. If they ask you what they "should" do, even then, I'd qualify it with: "I think you should...." – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Aug 3 '16 at 18:26

If I wanted to make a suggestion rather than a prescription I would say, "You might do X," (suggestion) instead of "You should do X" (prescription).

Should implies obligation, while might does not.

Softening my suggestion further, I could say, "You might want to do X."

"You can do X" or "You could do X" are also suggestions, and imply possibility but not obligation. Nevertheless I find "might" to be more polite, as it attenuates or reduces the level of possibility, implying that the matter really is up to the discretion of the person addressed.

http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/can-could-or-may http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/04/may-or-might-whats-the-difference/

Consider this advice from http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/politeness

Politeness: making what we say less direct

When we speak and write, we usually try not to be too direct. There are a number of ways in which we can do this.

Softening words (hedges)

We can use softening words or hedges to make what we say softer.


Softer: It’s kind of cold in here, isn’t it? Could we close the window?

More direct: It’s cold in here. Let’s close the window.

Softer: Could you just turn the radio down a little, please?

More direct: Turn down the radio. (The imperative is very direct when used in requests.)

Softer: Your playing could possibly be improved. [giving someone criticism on their musical performance] You may need to spend more time working a little bit on the rhythm.

More direct: You must improve your playing. You need to spend more time working on the rhythm.

Changing tenses and verb forms

Sometimes we use a past verb form when we refer to present time, in order to be more polite or less direct. We often do this with verbs such as hope, think, want and wonder. The verb may be in the past simple, or, for extra politeness, in the past continuous:

A: Where’s the key to the back door?

B: I was hoping you had it. (less direct than I hope you have it.)

I thought you might want to rest for a while since it’s been a long day.

I wanted to ask you a question.

I am having problems with my internet connection and I was just wondering if you could tell me how to fix it. (less direct and forceful than I have a problem with my internet connection and I wonder if you could tell me how to fix it.)*

Warning: In formal contexts, we sometimes use past forms in questions, invitations and requests in the present so as to sound more polite:

Did you want another coffee?

I thought you might like some help.

We were rather hoping that you would stay with us.

In shops and other service situations, servers often use past verb forms to be polite:

Assistant: What was the name please?

Customer: Perry, P-E-R-R-Y.

Assistant: Did you need any help, madam?

Customer: No, thanks. I’m just looking.

See also: Past verb forms referring to the present


Well the proper usage of should depends on the situation. If someone is explicitly asking you for advice then using 'should' is fine. If you're trying to help somebody who you feel like needs the help but isn't necessarily asking for it then you might want to approach the situation in a more delicate manner.


"You should" certainly implies that 'they can, and this is also the action they ought to take'.

If you say to me "You can answer my question" it means I have the possibility of answering your question, and nothing more.

If you say to me "You should answer my question" it means if I do not answer your question I have acted badly (from your point of view).

If you are trying to say someone should do something but want to 'tone it down a bit' you might try...

It would be good if you would [do something]...

It is advisable for you to [do something]

If what you want to say is, they ought to do this action (meaning if they don't they have acted improperly somehow) then you would just use should, like so:

You should [do something]

  • I read the question as being about advice for the benefit of the other person. (Like 'you should see a doctor'. Not like 'would you mind keeping your mouth shut'.) So, I wouldn't focus on impropriety or duty. – We oath to creation Aug 2 '16 at 19:01
  • Hey @Keepthesemind well the sense of duty is kind of integral to the word should. If we aren't suggesting this is the action they ought to take, we should use another word altogether. Even if we are saying "you should see a doctor" - we are saying, they are acting improperly if they don't. – Gary Aug 2 '16 at 19:03
  • What I meant is that if you want the other person to see a physician, then 'you should' is fine (as it also implies 'I want you to'; although it doesn't imply duty). If you don't care about the other person, then you may opt for 'I advise you to', 'maybe you should [consider]', 'you could' etc. – We oath to creation Aug 2 '16 at 19:19

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