1. What Does Should Mean?
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!
Learn more about giving advice and suggestions with this Oxford Online English lesson: Should, Ought to, Supposed to, Had Better.
Ok? Let’s move on.
3. Using Should to Express Your Opinion
You can use should to say what you think is the right thing for someone else to do.
- He should tell her how he feels.
- I think she should apply for that job.
This is quite similar to giving advice, except that you’re talking about a third person.
You can also use should in this way to talk about more general subjects. For example:
- The government should raise taxes on the rich.
- Everybody who works should get four weeks’ paid holiday a year.
Do you agree with these ideas? Try to think of one more example on a different topic. What subjects do you have strong opinions on? Pause the video and make a sentence with should. Say it out loud!
Up to here, we’ve seen how to use should to talk about the present or the future. However, you can also use should to talk about the past.
Let’s see how:
4. Using Should to Criticise Past Mistakes
Do you know how to use should in the past? What do you have to add after the verb?
Let’s see an example:
- You should have asked me for help.
You can see that to use should in the past, you need to add have plus a past participle after the verb should.
Let’s practise this quickly. Can you complete these two sentences to make them past?
- He should (book) the tickets earlier.
- They shouldn’t (spend) so much money on a car.
Think about your answers. Pause the video if you need time.
- He should have booked the tickets earlier.
- They shouldn’t have spent so much money on a car.
Next, let’s think about what should means in these sentences.
We use should in this way to talk about mistakes in the past; often, we use should in this way to criticise ourselves or other people. For example:
- You should have studied harder for your exam! —-> Meaning: you didn’t study hard for your exam, and I think this was a mistake.
- I shouldn’t have told her. –> Meaning: I told her, but I wish I hadn’t; it was a mistake to tell her.
What about you? Can you think of something you should have done differently in the past? Try to make your own example sentences! For extra practice, you could even write your sentences down.
Now, we have one more meaning of should to look at:
5. Using Should to Talk About Probability
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:
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%.
Thanks for watching! Learn about more modal verbs with our Introduction to Modal Verbs lesson!