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Should and Would

Commonly Confused Words


Should and Would

President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a letter to his brother Edgar (Nov. 8, 1954)

Use the verb should to express an obligation, a necessity, or a prediction. Use would to express a wish or a customary action. For more information, see the usage notes below.

See also: Putative Should


  • We should learn to enjoy doing nothing. As a child, I would sit for hours by the river, doing nothing.

  • "We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it." (Abraham Lincoln)

  • "If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?" (Abraham Lincoln)

Usage Notes:

  • "[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 Univ. Press, 2004)

  • "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 Univ. Press, 1995)


(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

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