Should vs. Would: How to Choose the Right Word

These helping words sound similar but have different meanings and uses

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You should stop at a stop sign, or you would get in an accident if a car comes. Sharon Basaraba

The words "should" and "would" are both helping verbs (in particular, modal auxiliaries), but they don't mean the same thing. "Should" and "would" are two of the 10 modal verbs in English (the others are "can," "could," "may," "might," "must," "ought," "shall," and "will"). A modal is a verb that combines with another verb to indicate mood or tense.

"Should" is actually the past tense of another of these modal verbs, "shall." Used as an auxiliary, "should" expresses a condition, an obligation, futurity, or probability. "Would" is the past tense of the modal verb "will." Used as an auxiliary, "would" expresses a possibility, an intention, a desire, a custom, or a request. Use "should" to express an obligation, a necessity, or a prediction; use "would" to express a wish or a customary action.

How to Use Should

Use should to express something that is probable, ask a question, or show an obligation or give a recommendation. To express something that is probable, you might say, "Joe should be here soon." To ask a question using "should," you could say, "Should I dress formally for the dance?" And, to make a strong recommendation, you might say, "You should stop eating so much, or you'll soon gain wait."

How to Use Would

Use "would" to make a polite request, ask questions, or express something about hypothetical situations. So, to make a polite request using "would," you could say, "Would you please pass the jelly?" To ask a question using this term, you could write, "Would you like ketchup with your fries?" And, to express a hypothetical sentiment, you might state, "If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would quit my job and retire the next day."

Examples

To use "should" to express an obligation, you could state:

  • We "should" try to be more patient with one another.

In this example, "should" expresses something that "we" (the subject of the sentence) ought to do. The term, "would," by contrast, often is used to express a customary action, as in this example:

  • When Joe was younger, he "would" often take the long way home after school.

In this sentence, "would" expresses a habit or custom that Joe practiced when he was young: that he "often took the long way home."

"Should" can also be used to express different degrees of certainty or obligation, which makes mastering this modal verb tricky. For example, consider the modal verb "should go" and how it's used in the following two sentences:

  • The bank closes in 15 minutes. We "should" go there now.
  • Joe "should" go to the bank only if he needs to get cash.

The first example expresses a definite degree of certainty: The bank closes in 15 minutes and, therefore, "we" need to go right now and get there before closing time. The second sentence expresses a lower degree of certainty: Joe "should" go to get cash only if needs cash. In other words, if Joe does not need cash, he "should not" go to the bank.

How to Remember the Difference

Use "should" to say that something is the right thing to do; use "would" to talk about a situation that is possible or imagined. So, add another modal, such as "could," to the sentence to see if it still makes sense. For example, you could say:

  • Joe "should" call his mom this week.

This means that Joe ought to call his mom; it's the right thing to do. If you add the word "could," the sentence doesn't make sense:

  • Joe "should" call his mom this week if he "could."

That sentence doesn't work because Joe's obligation to call his mom has nothing to do with whether he "could" (is able to) call her. It's still his obligation and the right thing to do. But, if you were to say:

  • Joe "would" call his mom if he were able to do so.

You're talking about a situation that is possible or imagined; Joe "would" call his mom, but due to circumstances, he may not be able to do so. You could add the phrase "if he could" to the sentence and it would still make sense:

  • Joe "would" call his mom if he "could."

Another way to think of it is "should" is "solid"—it is something that ought to happen. "Would" is "wobbly"—it's something that might happen but probably won't.

British vs. American Usage

As noted, in general usage, "should" implies an obligation or something that ought to be done, and "would" implies something that is possible. However, in formal British English, there is an alternative use for "should," which reverses its meaning compared to American English. In formal British English, a person might say:

  • I "should" like a cup of tea before I go to bed.

In this case, "should" does not mean a sense of obligation or something that ought to happen. Used as such, its meaning is closer to the word "would," as in something that is possible. Indeed, in American Engish, a speaker would say or a writer would write:

  • I "would" like a cup of tea before I go to bed.

This means that being given a cup of tea is something that might happen, but it might not, This, then, is actually the meaning a person is conveying if she is using formal British English.

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