Should and Would

Commonly Confused Words

should and would
President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a letter to his brother Edgar (Nov. 8, 1954). (Getty Images)

The words should and would are both helping verbs (in particular, modal auxiliaries), but they don't mean the same thing.

Definitions

Should is the past form of the verb shall. Used as an auxiliary, should expresses a condition, an obligation, futurity, or probability.

Would is the past form of the verb will. Used as an auxiliary, will expresses a possibility, an intention, a desire, a custom, or a request.

Put simply, use should to express an obligation, a necessity, or a prediction; use would to express a wish or a customary action.

See the usage notes below. Also see:

 

Examples

  • We should learn to enjoy doing nothing. As a child, I would sit for hours by the river, simply watching, listening, and daydreaming.
     
  • "Judge Hammersley . . . couldn't help overhearing his daughter, and he disliked her free and unreproachful tone with this man who was young when he should be old, single when he should be married, and penniless when he should be well fixed."
    (Willa Cather, "Double Birthday."  The Forum, 1929)
     
  • "The fog has lifted enough for us to see the place where the sun should be, and it's brighter yet out by the Golden Gate and we take the little boat out and aim for the brightness, the way a real couple might on a Saturday afternoon."
    (Pam Houston, Waltzing the Cat. Washington Square Press, 1998)
     
  • "In a newer hotel, he probably would have had a new phone, with lots of buttons he would never use but which would make him feel he had many resources at disposal."
    (Gish Jen, "Birthmates." Ploughshares. 1995) 
  • "If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?"
    (Abraham Lincoln)
     
  • "[S]he had great difficulty in playing to Richard's accompaniment. Suddenly her fingers would turn to thumbs, her wrists would flatten out and become cramped, her whole figure would hunch rigidly toward the piano and her beauty and grace would disappear."
    (Tennessee Williams, "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin." Hard Candy: A Book of Stories, 1954)

     

    Usage Notes
     

    • Uses of Should and Would in British and American English
      "[W]ould is now almost invariably used for expressing the future-in-past for all three persons, according to Longman Grammar (1999) research. For example:
      I said I would expect to come.
      You said you would expect to come.
      They said they would expect to come.
      Should serves to express prediction/volition instead of would only in deferential style. Compare:
      I should like to come. I would like to come.
      I should be delighted. I would be delighted.
      This rather formal style is much more British than American. Comparative data . . . show that its use is seven times more frequent in the UK than the US. . . .

      "Other uses of should make it a modal verb of obligation and necessity, whereas would continues to express volition and/or future possibilities . . .."
      (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge University Press, 2004)
       
    • Should, Would, and Should/Would
      "There are really three different verbs: should, would, and the mixed verb should/would.
      1. should
      This verb ( I should, you should, he/she/it should etc.) is used to talk about obligation, and in some other ways.
      Everybody should wear car seat belts.
      She should be back tomorrow.

      2. would
      This verb ( I would, you would, he/she/it would etc.) can be used to talk about past habits.
      When we were kids we would spend hours kicking a ball about, dreaming of being soccer internationals.

      3. should/would
      This verb—often considered as a 'conditional auxiliary'—has mixed forms: I should/would, you would, he/she/it would, we should/would, they would. In general, should/would is used as a past form, or less definite form, of shall/will. It is common in requests, offers and sentences with if.
      I told them we should/would probably be late.
      I should/would be grateful for an early reply.
      Would you like some help?
      If they could sing in tune it wouldn't be so bad.
      If you would come this way, madam.
      (Michael Swan, Practical English Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1995)


      Practice

      (a) When I was younger, I ______ often take the long way home after school.

      (b) We ______ try to be more patient with one another.
       

      Answers to Practice Exercises

      Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

      Answers to Practice Exercises: Should and Would

      (a) When I was younger, I would often take the long way home after school.

      (b) We should try to be more patient with one another.

      Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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      Your Citation
      Nordquist, Richard. "Should and Would." ThoughtCo, Oct. 5, 2016, thoughtco.com/should-and-would-1692779. Nordquist, Richard. (2016, October 5). Should and Would. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/should-and-would-1692779 Nordquist, Richard. "Should and Would." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/should-and-would-1692779 (accessed November 21, 2017).