I was doing a grammar exercise the other day and was confused by the key to this question.

He’s working hard for fear that he _____.

  1. should fall behind
  2. fell behind
  3. may fall behind
  4. would fallen behind

The answer given is that A is correct. But I think C is much better.

What is/are the correct answers here?

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    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 16:32

1 Answer 1


In response to a similar question on WordReference.com:

He is working hard for fear that he ____ fall behind others.

A should B would?

Thomas Tompion responds

The should/shall in the first person convention is appropriate for the ordinary future and conditional. Here we have a subjunctive created by a modal auxiliary and this would naturally be should rather than would where we wanted to give a more formal feel to the expression. One could also use might.

I agree with [the previous contributor] that one could use either should or would here, or one might elide the auxiliary altogether – which would give an even greater feel of formality.

Here are instances in the GB and US corpuses [via Google ngrams] of the different forms.

  • For fear that he should fall behind .... 0 (GB) - 0 (US)
  • For fear that he would fall behind ..... 1 (GB) - 14 (US)
  • For fear that he might fall behind ..... 2 (GB) - 7 (US)
  • For fear that he fall behind ................ 1 (GB) - 0 (US)

Lest anyone think that means that the form with should isn't to be found, here are two examples from literature, one American, the other British.

  • And, for fear that he should suspect how her heart was aching, she gave a particularly brilliant and joyous smile - [1911] Eleanor H. Porter » Miss Billy Married » Chapter XX. Arkwright's Eyes are Opened.
  • Is there any one you want to see, or anything of that sort?' and doing it as steadily as possible for fear that he should mistake the carelessness of whisky for the distraction of fear, I got my candle alight - [1902] H.G. Wells » The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost.

The Google 5grams illustrate the increasing currency of would against should in this construction, in both American and British English.

The most idiomatic answers would use '... would fall behand' and ' ... might fall behind'.

  • 4
    I checked out the most common word to follow for fear that he in NGrams. In descending order of popularity, it's would, might, may, will, should, was, could, has, is. And drilling down on even the last verb in that list gives me at least dozens of hits. But it's certainly quite clear that would is far more common than should today - whereas it was the complete opposite, 150 years ago. Commented Aug 15, 2020 at 11:14
  • Here we have a subjunctive created by a modal auxiliary and this would naturally be should — This needs a bit clarification. A helpful answer! Thanks, @Edwin Ashworth.
    – user405662
    Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 4:11
  • ... Yes. 'Here, on the other hand, we have a subjunctive created by a modal auxiliary ...'. As FumbleFingers says, 150 years ago, 'should' would have been the default choice in such constructions. // But not today. //// It's interesting (if statistically insignificant) to see that the non-modal variant 'for fear that he fall behind' only has a token in the Google ngram 'UK English' corpus. Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 10:24

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