Increasingly, I hear the word “should” in discussions about issues in the real world. You should spend money on education rather than fashion.

Churches should…

People should…

The government should…

“Should” is a verb, used to indicate a course of action one is obliged to. “You should eat your vegetables” is a proper use, assuming the speaker has the authority and knowledge to command the eating of vegetables. If you don’t have the authority to command an activity you should shut your mouth.

It is most commonly used in wishful thinking. “I should get paid for this” is a typical example. Try substituting the words “If only”, “If only I was paid for this”. If that works, you have misused the word “should”. That’s okay, most people understand you were only expressing a desire. But it would be so very nice if the word was used properly, removing the references that perpetuate misuse.

Yes, people should be nicer to each other, but they are not. There is no police force enforcing what we like to call “basic human values”. Well, not officially, but there is the Grammar Police.


Those “basic human values” actually vary from human to human. The American proverb “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins” expresses an understanding of the roots of tolerance. There is a Canadian variant “Walk a mile in my moccasins to learn where they pinch” that may make the message more clear. On the television program “LOST”, the character John Locke was told he couldn’t walk…


You have no idea what a person can’t, or can, do.

“Should”, as commonly used, would most properly be predicated with the words “I feel“, as in “I feel people who own guns should be shot”. Really emphasizing the word “feel” to distinguish it from the word the person will most likely use, “think”. Because unless you’re quoting a statute, you’re expressing your emotions rather than rational thought. In fact a ten year moratorium on the use of the word “think” is in order, as thinking is quite obviously a lost art and is perverted in its current use.

“Should” belongs in the same category as “In a perfect world…”. It’s not a perfect world! Blame whoever you want, Satan, Man, Obama, Bush, the world is not perfect so let’s just do what we can with what we have. Stop telling me what should be and tell me a little about what you have done. The information would be much more useful, and possibly the effect you are looking for would be realized.

After Sandy, a number of people were talking about what we should do. One friend said “I’m going to the shore to rebuild houses, want to come along?”. Guess which proposition succeeded?

We do what we can, not always what we should. I have come to accept people who have greatly disappointed me, because even though I feel they should have done better, in thinking about it I realize they did the best they could. Not the best I could do, but the very best they were capable of. And that is the only measure we have, all that is possible is what we as individuals are capable of.


One comment on “Should

  1. mike r says:

    “People ought (to) . .” was a term I remember growing up as a Southerner. The “to” was implied but not spoken. The impact was the same as the “should” of your discussion. In the nanny states created by democracy, they both become oppressive terms. Not that we need external oppression when we are so good at oppressing ourselves with “I should have . . .” guilt trips that often accompany depression and poor views of oneself. As a Christian I certainly can use “should” for mores that a higher authority commands me to adhere to, and I am thankful that Christianity teaches me of my constant failure at such mores being covered by the work of Christ upon the cross. I have found this a wonderful cure for my self-righteous tendency to issue “shoulds” for others.


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