This usage of "should have" appears to be a Britishism. I wonder if anyone cares to provide an explanation of the British "should have" usages.

Several observers have emphasised Dusty Miller's devotion to the Joyita and reported his insistence that the boat was unsinkable. Why, then, would he willingly have abandoned ship under any circumstances? According to Robin Maugham, Charles Marsack said, "I can't imagine why he should have left her. And I don't believe he did." (source: Joyita: Solving the Mystery 2002)

The passage deals with MV Joyita's 1955 disappearance. Miller clearly is believed to have abandoned the boat, so "should have left" here does not indicate a wish contrary to what happened in the past, rather, a confirmation of what happened. Why "should have left"? What sense of should is invoked? Here's another similar sentence:

What puzzles me is why he should have left without telling me. (source: Cambridge Dictionary)

  • I wouldn't say that this usage is common here in Australia, but it seems perfectly natural to me. (We are more aligned with British English than American in general though.)
    – nnnnnn
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 8:29
  • "should have" is not always British English. That said, I personally, am having a hard time trying to figure out when I would or would not use it as an AmE speaker.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 21:02

2 Answers 2


The sentence I can't imagine why he should have left her expresses a personal judgement or reaction to a behaviour.

In the entry on should in Practical English Usage (page 512) Swan states in the section titled reactions: It's surprising that she should...:

Should is also used in subordinate clauses after words expressing personal judgements and reactions, especially to facts which are already known or already mentioned. (This use is more common in British than American English. It is not particularly formal.)

Swan gives the examples:

  • It's surprising that she should say that to you.
  • I'm sorry you should think I did it on purpose.
  • Do you think it's normal that the child should be so tired.

He concludes:

In American English, would is more usual in this kind of sentence: - It was natural that they would want him to go to a good school. (BrE...that they should...)

  • This is helpful. Thanks!
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 7:25
  • So this usage is possible only when should is used in a subordinate clause. And this wouldn't work, would it? Charles Marsack said, "Why should he have left her? And I don't believe he did." // Also, in Swan's examples, I wonder why Swan should use (or should have used?) should say/think/be instead of should have said/thought/been when the situation of saying/thinking/being is located prior to the time of speaking.
    – listeneva
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 7:52
  • @listeneva. As a British English native speaker I use expressions such as: I should think so! or I should hope not. So this use of should is not confined to subordinate clauses. The inherent problem with should is that its use can result in ambiguity. The style guide The Right Word at the Right Time: A Guide to the English Language and How to Use It (p560) discusses the sentence: It was obvious that we should report him to the police. >>
    – Shoe
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 10:29
  • >> "Most people would understand this to mean 'it was obvious that we ought to report him'. But a purist might have intended it to mean 'It was obvious that we were going to report him' and thereby have laid himself open to misunderstanding."
    – Shoe
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 10:30
  • @Shoe Thanks for responding. But I'm afraid you have not answered neither of my questions. Instead, you have given me another question to ask. Could you first please answer the two questions in my prior comment?
    – listeneva
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 4:49

The Wikipedia article contains the following: A friend of Miller, Captain S. B. Brown, was convinced that Miller would never have left Joyita alive.

Apparently Miller (and everyone else) was missing from the vessel, but there was speculation that he might have been injured and fallen overboard, or that the occupants had been captured. So his leaving voluntarily is not a certainty.

The use of should or would implies that the speaker cannot imagine a scenario in which it is probable that Miller deliberately abandoned ship.

  • I'd have no problem at all if it were "I can't imagine why he would have left her." With "should" it seems a totally different story to me. Could you expand on "should have"?
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented May 9, 2020 at 7:37
  • Cambridge Dictionaries gives 'why should when giving or asking the reason for something' as 'mainly UK'. e.g. I don't see why he should get more money than me. I gather you are in the USA, so perhaps that's why it puzzles you? Commented May 9, 2020 at 7:58
  • I guess so. I am surprised this does not appear to have been discussed before. I would think there must have been a canonical post on ELU/ELL. I am also puzzling over the downvote casually hurled at my question. It seems the downvoter just mistook this question to be simply about the third conditional and failed to understand its nature. All the more reason why there should be a detailed answer on "should have" in the BrE. I wonder if you could elaborate further.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented May 9, 2020 at 16:33
  • All I can tell you is that I scrolled through Cambridge's various definitions for should until I found one that seemed to fit your sentence. All the ones that say 'mainly UK' seem perfectly natural to me. Commented May 9, 2020 at 16:50
  • I have also gone through Cambridge's "should" page and understood what's meant by the example sentences, but I still think a detailed answer is in order, considering there isn't one yet. I understood the meaning of the sentence in question before posting but couldn't explain the usage. I still can't except I now know it is a BrE usage. Anyway I will wait and see if more detailed answers come up. Thanks!
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented May 9, 2020 at 17:01

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