What is the Putative 'Should?' (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In English grammar, putative "should" is the use of the word should in contexts that indicate surprise or disbelief, or that refer to the occurrence (or possible occurrence) of some situation or event. This usage differs from the should of obligation (i.e., the mandative "should").

As noted by Randolph Quirk et al., putative should (also called emotional "should") occurs in that clauses "after expressions of emotion (sorrow, joy, displeasure, surprise, wonder, etc.), and is often accompanied by intensifying expressions such as so, such, like this/that, ever, or at all" (A Comprehensive Grammar, 1985).

In addition, putative should "occurs in subordinate clauses as an alternative to the subjunctive after expressions of suggesting, advising, etc.: They insisted that I (should) stay the whole week" (Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 1994).

Putative should is more common in British English than in American English.

Also Known As: emotional should, attitudinal should, hypothetical should, subjunctive should


  • "Major Green gently nodded and then briefly glanced through the same porthole, behind which the Earth lay static and diminutive, no bigger than an average football. 'The oddest thing for me is that people should be living there at all!' he exclaimed on a softly humorous note." (John O'Loughlin, Millennial Projections, 1983)
  • "It is surprising that you should find this practice shocking, since you French cut off the heads of your King and Queen." (Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, 1941)
  • "I know it's a little strange, a little bit of a contradiction, that a far-seeing place should also be a basement place, but that's how it is with me." (Stephen King, Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2000)
  • "It seems a great shame you should have to pay for what Albert and Clara did." (Arnold Bennett, These Twain, 1915)
  • "It is sad that you should talk such nonsense, and sadder that I should have to listen."(Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller, Studies in Humanism, 1912)
  • "Peter Walsh, who had done just respectably, filled the usual posts adequately, was liked, but thought a little cranky, gave himself airs—it was odd that he should have had, especially now that his hair was grey, a contented look; a look of having reserves." (Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 1925)

Adjectives With Putative Should

"The adjectives anxious, eager, and willing are followed by a that-clause with putative should or the subjunctive. Adjectives expressing 'concepts concerned with modality or volition' (Quirk et al 1985: 1224) also belong to this group. Examples are appropriate, essential, important, vital. Adjectives which can be followed by a verb phrase in the that-clause with either an indicative verb phrase or one with putative should express emotions. Examples are afraid, angry, hopeful, inconceivable, odd, sad, sorry, surprised, surprising." (Ilka Mindt, Adjective Complementation: An Empirical Analysis of Adjectives Followed by That-Clauses. John Benjamins, 2011)

"Factual" Should

"In most of its uses, should is to be found in contexts which are either counterfactual (as in You should be in your office at this time of day, which presupposes '...but you are not in your office') or tentative (as in You should give up smoking, which contains a presupposition approximately paraphrasable as '...but I'm not sure you will give up smoking'). In some cases, however, should is used in contexts which—at least apparently—contain no negative implication. These contexts, which may be called factual, seem to contradict the hypothesis that -ed always expresses a presupposition of unreality. (Most 'factual' uses of should concern what is often called 'putative' should—see, for instance, Quirk et al...The coincidence of the two categories, however, is only partial.)" (Paul Larreya, "Irrealis, Past Time Reference and Modality." Modality in Contemporary English, ed. by Roberta Facchinetti, Manfred G. Krug, and Frank Robert Palmer. Walter de Gruyter, 2003)

Jespersen on Emotional Should

"We may use the term emotional should for the use of should in passing a judgment of an emotional character (agreeable or disagreeable surprise, indignation, joy) on some occurrence which may, or may not, be a fact.

"A sentence like 'Why was the date omitted?' is a mere factual question, but 'Why should the date of the document be omitted?' implies wonder and, possibly, some suspicion of the purity of the motives. Compare further:

Where the divell should he learne our language? (Sh.).
Why should they try to influence him? [=I see no reason]
Someone asking for you. Who should ask for me?

Similarly, these examples show use in clauses:

It is not good that the man should be alone (AV).
It was quite natural that the Russians should hate their oppressors.
Why should she have done so, I can hardly tell.

'It is strange that she married (or has married) such an old man' merely states the fact; 'It is strange that she should have married such an old man' lays more stress on the strangeness by using the imaginative should in the clause." (Otto Jespersen, Essentials of English Grammar. George Allan & Unwin, 1933)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What is the Putative 'Should?' (Grammar)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/putative-should-grammar-1691554. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). What is the Putative 'Should?' (Grammar). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/putative-should-grammar-1691554 Nordquist, Richard. "What is the Putative 'Should?' (Grammar)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/putative-should-grammar-1691554 (accessed April 1, 2023).