Do you know how to use should in English? Like most modal verbs, should has many different meanings and can be used in many different ways. In this lesson, you can learn how to use should correctly and naturally in different situations.
QUIZ: Using Should in English
How well do you understand the ideas in this lesson? Are you confident about how to use ‘should’ and what it means when you read or hear it? Test yourself with the 20 questions in this quiz.
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Question 1 of 12
For the first five questions, put the words in order to create a sentence. Click ‘Hint’ to see what each sentence means.
This is advice, meaning “I think it’s a good idea for you to take an umbrella.”
Question 2 of 12
This is asking for advice, meaning “when do you think it’s best for me to arrive?”
Question 3 of 12
It’s possible to understand this statement in a number of ways, with two meanings of ‘should’ and also two meanings of ‘free’.
It could be an opinion, meaning “I don’t think it’s right to ask people to pay to park”;
it could also be a prediction of probability, meaning “I’m not sure, but I imagine you won’t have to pay” or “I imagine there will be a space available”.
Question 4 of 12
This is criticising something in the past, i.e. “it would have been a good idea for you to call me.”
Question 5 of 12
This could also mean two things, depending on the context.
The most likely meaning is a prediction: “I expect you will find beer in the fridge”;
or it could be a complaint: “Why isn’t there any beer? I expected there to be some!”
Question 6 of 12
Questions 6-10 are on one page. Match five statements with the meanings of ‘should’.
I’m talking about what I think will happen.
This is my advice to you.
This is asking someone for advice.
I think you made a mistake.
This is my opinion.
6. We shouldn’t be too busy today, it’s a holiday.
7. You should leave at 7.30 if you want to be there by 9.00.
8. What should I buy for his birthday?
9. You shouldn’t have stayed out in the sun all day.
10. Buses should be free for old people.
Question 7 of 12
Questions 11-15 are on one page. The five statements all contain a mistake. Match them with the explanations of the mistakes.
This describes an obligation; so use ‘must’ or ‘have to’ instead.
The form is wrong; don’t use the full infinitive after ‘should’.
The form is wrong; to criticise something in the past, use ‘should have’.
The form is wrong; there is no third person singular form of ‘should’.
The form is wrong; make the main verb negative, not ‘should’.
11. You should wear a seat belt. It’s the law.
12. Should I to bring anything for the party?
13. They should of packed warmer clothes.
14. She shoulds think before she speaks.
15. I think he shouldn’t be so rude.
Question 8 of 12
For questions 16-20, decide if ‘should’ can be used in the gap, so that each pair of sentences means the same.
“We will probably have finished servicing your car by five o’clock.”
= “Your car _________ be ready by five o’clock.”
‘Should’ is possible in THREE of the next five questions. There’s one that wasn’t covered in the lesson, so you need to decide if you think ‘should’ sounds correct.
Question 16 is a prediction of something that is very probable.
Question 9 of 12
“It’s a pity you didn’t call yesterday; we still had some tickets available.”
= “You _________ have called yesterday; we still had some tickets available.”
This is a criticism of something that someone didn’t do in the past.
Question 10 of 12
“Catching the bus is an option, but there’s plenty of time; why don’t we walk?”
= “We _________ catch the bus, but there’s no hurry – let’s walk.”
There’s no suggestion that catching the bus is a good or bad idea – it’s only a possibility.
Question 11 of 12
“Do you think the black or the blue dress is better?”
= “_________ I wear the black or the blue dress?”
This is asking for someone’s advice or opinion.
Question 12 of 12
“It’s possible that I’ll be late tomorrow.”
= “I _________ be late tomorrow.”
This is a prediction of something that the person doesn’t want to happen.
This question sounds simple, but when you think about it, it’s not so easy to answer.
Look at a sentence:
You shouldn’t work so hard.
Could you change this sentence, so that you keep the same meaning, but without using should? Think about it.
There’s more than one possible answer; here’s one:
I think it would be better for you not to work so hard.
I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to work so hard.
These are not the only two; there are more possibilities.
From these examples, you can see that when you use should, you’re talking about what you think is right, or what you think the best idea for someone.
For example, if I say:
You shouldn’t eat mushrooms if you don’t know what kind they are.
I mean that it’s best for you not to eat mushrooms if you aren’t sure what they are. After all, they might be poisonous.
Now, we’re going to look at different meanings of should in more detail. Keep the ideas from this section in mind through this lesson. Hopefully they’ll make it easier to connect the different ideas you’re about to see!
2. Using Should to Give Advice
This is one of the most common ways to use should: giving advice to other people.
You shouldn’t eat pizza for dinner every night.
You should watch “Mad Men”; it’s an interesting show.
In these cases, I’m giving you advice—telling you what I think is a good idea for you to do.
Easy enough, right? Try to think of your own examples. What kind of things do we give advice about? Many things: work, study, hobbies, dating, lifestyle…
Pause the video and practise: give yourself one piece of advice!
We said at the beginning that you use should to talk about the right thing to do.
That’s true for all the meanings of should we’ve seen until now. However, there’s one exception, one meaning of should which doesn’t fit this pattern.
Look at two sentences. Can you see what should means?
There should be some milk left.
He should be here soon.
Remember: should here has a completely different meaning to everything we’ve seen so far. Can you work it out?
In these sentences, should expresses probability. If I say:
There should be some milk left.
I mean that I think there’s probably some milk left. By probably I mean ‘more than 50% chance.’
So I might say this if I remember buying milk a few days ago, and I think there’s some left. I’m not 100% certain; but I think there’s probably still some milk in the fridge.
In our other example, if I say:
He should be here soon.
I mean that he’ll probably get here soon.
For example, imagine your friend is coming to visit you. You know that his train arrives at 12.00 and it takes twenty minutes to get to your house from the station. The time now is 12.20. You could say he should be here soon.
How do you know if should means “I think this is the right thing” or “I think this is probable?”
It depends on the context. Usually, it’ll be obvious.
For example, if I say:
You should definitely go to the British Museum if you’re in London. It’s really worth a visit.
It’s clear here that should means “I think it’s a good idea for you to go to the British Museum” and not, “I think you’ll probably go to the British Museum.”
Similarly, if I say:
It should take about 30 minutes to get there by car.
…then should clearly expresses probability. There’s no way for this sentence to be advice or criticism, or anything like that.
Now, you’ve seen all the possible meanings of should.
Finally, let’s review what you’ve learned in this class.
Should is mostly used to express what you think is right or what you think is the best thing.
So, you can use should to give advice or to express your opinion about different topics.
Remember that should is not the same as must or have to. When you use should, you aren’t talking about obligations or things which are necessary, you’re talking about what you think is best.
You can also use should + have + past participle to talk about the past. We use should in this way to criticise past mistakes.
There’s one way to use should which doesn’t fit this pattern: should can mean that something is probable. You need to use the context to work out what should means, although it’s quite obvious in most cases.
Remember that probable here has a specific meaning: it means the chance of something happening is higher than 50%.