A few days ago I wrote a bit here about how my junior high and high school English teachers had tried to persuade my classmates and me of the differences between will and shall, differences that virtually no one employs any longer.
I mentioned, too, that I'd started thinking about this because of a poem I'd recently memorized, a poem by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)--"A Thunderstorm in Town" (link to poem)--a poem about a man and a woman in a horse-drawn cab, waiting out the rain. The rain stops; the young woman leaves; the man says: "I should have kissed her if the rain / Had lasted a minute more."
I'm pretty certain that most of us today would say, "I would have kissed her ...."
And I mentioned, as well, how William F. Buckley, Jr., used to begin each episode of his long-running PBS program, Firing Line (1966-1999), by saying to his audience--and his principal guest--"I should like to begin by asking Mr. Dyer [I wish]...."
I'm pretty certain that most of us today would say, "I will begin ...." Or "I am going to begin ...."
So ... whazzup with should?
Today, most of is use it as an auxiliary to indicate determination or obligation: I should have written to her. I should give a lot of money to my retired English teacher. And so on.
But should used to have a shall-like distinction, as my old Plain English Handbook (1972) explains:
The uses of should and would correspond to those of shall and will:
- For simple future, use should with the first person, and use would with the second and third.
- For determination, reverse the order.
- In questions in the first person, use should. In questions in the 2nd and 3rd persons, use the form which would be correct in the answer.
- In indirect discourse (indirect quotation), use the form that would be correct if the quotation were direct.
- There is a trend among conservative authorities not to overstress the foregoing rules governing the use of shall and will, should and would, because of the wide variation in actual practice.
Okay, that's cleared up, right? Should is the past of shall; would is the past of will.
And let's look at the 6th definition of should in my old Webster's 2nd: used in auxiliary function to express a desire or request.
So ... in the poem ... I should have kissed her (a desire).
But in Buckley's I should like to begin, we need to look at the Oxford English Dictionary for this; it comes in part c under definition 19 of shall (which, remember, is the present of should):
With verbs of liking, preference, etc., should in the first person (and interrogatively in the second) is regarded as more correct than would, though this is often used.
So, Buckley, a fastidious user of the language, used like in his opening, so should needs to go with it, says the OED.
A confession: If I had to think about all of this before I spoke or wrote, I would (should?) never speak or write again! It's possible I will (shall?) never use those words again!