The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 30 May 2020

Missing moods in English

Rob Hoelz mentioned that (one of?) the Nenets languages has different verb moods for concepts that in English are both indicated by “should” and “ought”:

"this is the state of the world as I assume it" vs "this is the state of the world as it currently isn't, but it would be ideal"

Examples of the former being:

  • That pie should be ready to come out of the oven
  • If you leave now, you should be able to catch the 8:15 to Casablanca

and of the latter:

  • People should be kinder to one another
  • They should manufacture these bags with stronger handles

I have often wished that English were clearer about distinguishing these. For example, someone will say to me

Using git splurch should fix that

and it is not always clear whether they are advising me how to fix the problem, or lamenting that it won't.

A similar issue applies to the phrase “ought to”. As far as I can tell the two phrases are completely interchangeable, and both share the same ambiguities. I want to suggest that everyone start using “should” for the deontic version (“you should go now”) and “ought to” for the predictive verion (“you ought to be able to see the lighthouse from here”) and never vice versa, but that's obviously a lost cause.

I think the original meaning of both forms is more deontic. Both words originally meant monetary debts or obligations. With ought this is obvious, at least once it's pointed out, because it's so similar in spelling and pronunciation to owed. (Compare pass, passed, past with owe, owed, ought.)

For shall, the Big Dictionary has several citations, none later than 1425 CE. One is a Middle English version of Romans 13:7:

Ȝelde ȝe to alle men ȝoure dettes: to hym þat ȝe schuleþ trybut, trybut.

As often with Middle English, this is easier than it looks at first. In fact this one is so much easier than it looks that it might become my go-to example. The only strange word is schuleþ itself. Here's my almost word-for-word translation:

Yield ye to all men your debts: to him that ye oweth tribute, pay tribute.

The NIV translates it like this:

Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes

Anyway, this is a digression. I wanted to talk about different kinds of should. The Big Dictionary distinguishes two types but mixes them together in its listing, saying:

In statements of duty, obligation, or propriety. Also, in statements of expectation, likelihood, prediction, etc.

The first of these seems to correspond to what I was calling the deontic form (“people should be kinder”) and the second (“you should be able to catch that train”.) But their quotations reveal several other shades of meaning that don't seem exactly like either of these:

Some men should have been women

This is not any of duty, obligation, propriety, expectation, likelihood, or prediction. But it is exactly M. Hoelz’ “state of the world as it currently isn't”.


I should have gotten out while I had the chance

Again, this isn't (necessarily) duty, obligation, or propriety. It's just a wish contrary to fact.

The OED does give several other related shades of “should” which are not always easy to distinguish. For example, its definition 18b says

ought according to appearances to be, presumably is

and gives as an example

That should be Barbados..unless my reckoning is far out.

Compare “We should be able to see Barbados from here”.

Its 18c is “you should have seen that fight!” which again is of the wish-contrary-to-fact type; they even gloss it as “I wish you could have…”.

Another distinction I would like to have in English is between “should” used for mere suggestion in contrast with the deontic use. For example

It's sunny out, we should go swimming!

(suggestion) versus

You should finish your homework before you play ball.


Say this distinction was marked in English. Then your mom might say to you in the morning

You should¹ wash the dishes now, before they get crusty

and later, when you still haven't washed the dishes:

You should² wash the dishes before you go out

meaning that you'll be in trouble if you fail in your dish washing duties.

When my kids were small I started to notice how poorly this sort of thing was communicated by many parents. They would regularly say things like

  • You should be quiet now
  • I need you to be quiet now
  • You need to be quiet now
  • You want to be quiet now

(the second one in particular) when what they really meant, it seemed to me, was “I want you to be quiet now”.

[ I didn't mean to end the article there, but after accidentally publishing it I decided it was as good a place as any to stop. ]

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