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You should have passed the exam.

Can be understood as:

  1. You are very smart; the exam is very easy for you; but you didn't pass the exam.

  2. You are very lazy; the exam wasn't that hard for you, but you failed.

How to correctly use should in many contexts like this?

Update:

Answer to "Can you elaborate how you arrive at the second interpretation?"

google "define:should", the first result tells us:

  1. used to emphasize to a listener how striking an event is or was. "you should have seen Marge's face"

    emphasizing how surprising an event was. "I was in this shop when who should I see across the street but Tobias"

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  • 1
    Also, note that another possible interpretation of this sentence that I can think of is: “It is likely that you passed the exam.” For example in the following context: “I know you learnt well and you said that you had plenty of time to answer every question. Do not worry. You should have passed the exam.”
    – Wrzlprmft
    Dec 23, 2016 at 9:00
  • Please see my update.
    – xmllmx
    Dec 23, 2016 at 9:06
  • 2
    'Should' covered comprehensively at Nuances in variants of “I should/would/∅ think so”. Dec 23, 2016 at 9:25
  • There’s no real, significant difference between the two interpretations you give. Both imply that the person is smart enough to pass the exam, and both imply that the reason they didn’t is related to the person themself, for example that they were too lazy to give it their best effort. They’re just two sides of the same statement. If you wanted an actually different interpretation, it can also mean that the exam was so easy that X should have passed it easily, and that the reason they didn’t can only be that the examiner graded them unfairly. Dec 23, 2016 at 10:05
  • Context (2) here means 'should' carries a reproof (it's your fault you didn't pass) as well as a modal statement (you were expected to pass). In context (1), 'should' can be read as carrying the 'you were expected to pass' sense alone, though context might add reproof (directed at the addressee, or, as Janus says, the markers). Sense (3) (given by Wrzlprmft) is a modal statement but where the actual result is unknown. Dec 23, 2016 at 10:16

3 Answers 3

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Modal verbs are tricky because the same modal can have different interpretations. Without context, we cannot be certain which situation is being expressed. For example,

You could have passed the exam

a. (Sympathetic) The candidate had the ability and capability to pass the exam but he/she didn't.
b. (Disapproving) The candidate didn't pass because he/she didn't study hard enough.
c. (Objective) The candidate had the opportunity to pass the exam, but failed. We do not know why. d. (Suggestion) The candidate never sat the exam but if they had, they might have passed.

Likewise for should

You should have passed the exam.

a. (Surprised) The exam was relatively easy for anyone to pass, but the candidate failed.
b. (Obligation) The candidate had to pass, but he/she didn't.
c. (Disapproving) Although the exam was within the candidate's ability, he/she failed.
d. (Deduction/incredulity) Despite all expectations, and the candidate's preparation, he/she failed the exam

Only greater context will tell the listener which of the scenarios listed above is meant.

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    This does not answer the question. OP says that 'should' has different interpretations. / Context may not disambiguate completely here. Dec 23, 2016 at 10:21
  • It now addresses 'should'. Downvote removed. No corroborating references, though, so no upvote. / The duplicate I cited doesn't cover all bases, but I seem to remember tchrist posting a few pages from OED on the many usages of should. Dec 23, 2016 at 11:31
  • @EdwinAshworth Unfortunately, I don't have access to the OED from Italy. But the Cambridge dictionary definitions of should in the link, does quite a good job.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 23, 2016 at 11:33
  • Voting is non-personal (or should be). No thanks are applicable (and I wish someone would intervene when vitriol is some people's response to downvotes-with-explanation). But I will break out of the Sherlock persona at this time of the year. Merry Christmas :) Dec 23, 2016 at 11:34
  • Merry Christmas to you too.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 23, 2016 at 11:36
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"How to correctly use should in many contexts like this?"

Using it correctly would involve the other person understanding how you meant it, yes?

This seems to be a question about body language, tone of voice and context. English words have many possible uses, so it's the way, time and place that they are used that define their meaning.

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  • Welcome to English Language and Usage. Let's say there is neither body language nor tone of voice and context is missing. What does the sentence mean?
    – user140086
    Dec 23, 2016 at 10:02
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@JanusBahsJacquet commented:

There’s no real, significant difference between the two interpretations you give. Both imply that the person is smart enough to pass the exam, and both imply that the reason they didn’t is related to the person themself, for example that they were too lazy to give it their best effort. They’re just two sides of the same statement. If you wanted an actually different interpretation, it can also mean that the exam was so easy that X should have passed it easily, and that the reason they didn’t can only be that the examiner graded them unfairly.

@EdwinAshworth commented:

Context (2) here means 'should' carries a reproof (it's your fault you didn't pass) as well as a modal statement (you were expected to pass). In context (1), 'should' can be read as carrying the 'you were expected to pass' sense alone, though context might add reproof (directed at the addressee, or, as Janus says, the markers).

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