Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Should you ...?

I think I've posted here before about how--when I was a lad--my teachers worked hard (and generally failed) to make sure we observed the differences between will and shall in our writing. Here are the rules as they appear in one of the earliest usage manuals I have--Plain English Handbook, 1972. I'm quoting directly.

  • Use shall in the first person and will in the second and third person for the simple future tense.
    • I shall sing this afternoon.
    • You will succeed. He will stay at home.
  • To express determination, desire, or a promise, reverse the normal order and use will in the first person and shall in the second and third persons.
    • I will be there.
    • You shall not go.
  • In asking questions in the first person, use shall; in the second or third persons use the form that would be correct in the answer.
    • Shall you leave tomorrow? (The answer is "I shall.")
    • Will John defy me?" (He will.)
  • Use shall in all persons in object (noun) clauses after verbs of deciding, wishing, demanding, willing, etc."
    • He insists that they shall not follow him.
There's more, but I'm getting bored just typing the stuff. Just as I was bored back in elementary and junior high, doing all those will-shall worksheets ...

I think it's pretty obvious today that in common usage these distinctions are pretty much gone. People who use shall now--even if "correctly" so--tend to sound a bit, you know, elitist. (Which ain't good in these egalitarian days.)

I got to thinking about this the other day because I memorized a poem by Thomas Hardy--"A Thunderstorm in Town"--a short, two-stanza poem in which a man tells about an experience in a cab with a woman in a new red dress. It's raining outside when they reach her destination, so the cab waits a bit. Then it stops; she gets out. And the narrator says: I should have kissed her if the rain / Had lasted a minute more. (Link to the entire poem.)

I put should in boldface because that's the word I want to talk about. Today, we use should principally to indicate ought. In other words, You should study more = You ought to study more.

But ... back in the day ... should had some more subtle meanings.

Hardy's use of should (more below) reminded me of William F. Buckley, Jr. Although he and I were pretty far apart politically (okay, very far apart), I liked to read Buckley; I subscribed to his magazine (National Review--in fact, I once published an article for them that was the cover story on September 28, 1979--see image), watched his long-running TV interview show, Firing Line, on PBS. I admired his facility with language. I even envied it. And ... what a vocabulary! I would look up words he used--and thus learned the definitions of tergiversate and anfractuous and maieutic and many others. (Spell-checker just had a hernia about these three words!) (Can't say that I use them a lot--but I do know them.)

On Firing Line each week Buckley would interview (and often eviscerate) a guest (a political thinker, a politician, a writer), and he would always begin the same way. He'd give a brief introduction of the person and then commence the questioning as he did in this beginning to his interview with Norman Mailer (broadcast on Nov. 4, 1979), an interview concerning Mailer's new nonfiction book The Executioner's Song. I own a copy of the transcript. (Image!)

Anyway, here's how Buckley started: I should like to begin by asking Mr. Mailer whether he intended that his book should be adopted by fundamentalists on the subject of capital punishment.  

Once again, I've highlighted the should. And Buckley said it, every week--the same clause: I should like to begin by asking ...

Sounds odd to our ears today--doesn't it?--because I  think most of us would now say I would like to begin ...

So what's going on with should?


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