Oh, that he should do so!


Earlier today, this question was posted and then deleted by the OP...

"Oh, that they should think so!"

What does this sentence structure mean?

After I'd laboriously composed an answer, I was somewhat irritated to discover I couldn't "post" it because the question had been deleted. So I've asked it again here, where I can post my own answer.

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2014-02-24T14:48:11.493

Reputation: 52 587



Arguably this question isn't a good fit for a learners site, but we are where we are. First of all, note...

...showing that this dated/poetic/archaic construction has little relevance to contemporary English.

The exclamation O (more commonly transcribed as Oh today) can have a wide range of meanings. That MW list is only partial - it doesn't even include the very common use as a hesitation device, for example - but the first definition is what applies to OP's example, where it's being used to express surprise.

Effectively therefore, we can equate Oh here to It is surprising - followed by a "that" clause specifying exactly what is surprising. We can thus rephrase the utterance as...

That they should think so is surprising.
...more simply, noting this earlier ELL question explaining that should is optional in such contexts...
That they think so is surprising.
...or even more simply...
They think so, which is surprising.

In the example in an earlier question on Proper usage of 'to do so', the "referent" of so (what it actually refers to) is explicitly specified in the utterance. In OP's example here, it's not - so we can't even say for certain whether it means that they think in a certain way, or that they believe a certain thing to be true. Probably the latter, but in practice the precise "thing believed" would be clear in context.

The only aspect of this construction relevant to current English concerns potential distinctions between...

Q: "Would you say this is a good answer?"
A1: "I think so."
A2: "I should think so."

As mentioned above, "should" is effectively optional here. As so often happens in such situations, native speakers naturally look for some reason why the speaker chose to add an apparently unnecessary word (particularly in this case, since #A is an extremely common thing to say).

It would be misleading to suggest there's any specific meaning to should in my final example there. The most credible "literal" sense would be "I ought to think that [but for some reason I don't]", but in practice that's an unlikely thing to want to say. Usually it's either a way of adding hesitancy (I might think that if I were to think about it at all), or emphasis (often with think stressed, and an exclamation mark after so, giving the sense of "I very definitely do think that!").

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2014-02-24T14:48:11.493

Reputation: 52 587

What a wonderful explanation. I think this Q is related to the one I asked before: http://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/24938/two-usages-of-should-have-done Is the "should have thought" in my post the backshifted form of your putative "should think"? or just a way of further distancing one's thoughts?

– Kinzle B – 2015-09-26T08:08:35.670

@Kinzle: *I should have thought it was obvious* that in this sentence I'm "distancing" myself from the assertion more than would be the case if I'd started with *I think it's obvious*. But as pointed out by comments/answers to your linked question, using *should* rather than *would* is pretty dated/starchy (particularly for AmE speakers), so the net effect is supercilious / haughty rather than formal / deferential. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-09-26T16:09:38.300

So it would be considered as formal or deferential back in pre-1800s? Jimsug says should could express propriety. What's meant by propriety? meaning appropriateness? @FumbleFingers – Kinzle B – 2015-09-26T17:02:34.400

@Kinzle: Yes. If I say You should respect your parents, I probably mean you ought to (because it's right, proper, correct to do so). But if I say You should have seen what happened at the pub last night there's no particular implication of "correctness" - I probably just mean something remarkable happened (which I think you'd like to know about, so probably I'm about to give you all the details). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-09-27T16:05:08.197

I'm wondering if it were rephrased as "Oh, I wish they should think so!" would it be semantically equivalent to the exclamation in question? – Lucian Sava – 2016-12-07T21:55:23.193

It really depends on the exact full context. As I pointed out, OP's exclamation can be seen as equivalent to They think so, which is surprising. That interpretation would normally imply the speaker is unpleasantly surprised (but it might sometimes imply he's pleased). On the other hand, the same utterance could imply that it would be surprising if they did in fact think that way (as a hypothetical scenario), in which case it's much more likely that the speaker means he would be pleasantly surprised (i.e. - that's what he would wish to be the case). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2016-12-08T14:38:09.247

1Sometimes that "surprise" is mingled with appreciation or admiration, as in: Oh, what a thorough answer! – J.R. – 2014-02-24T15:21:07.240

@J.R.: Oh, absolutely! But I did point out that the MW definition I linked to was only partial. Oh - and I still think that today in speech very likely the most common usage is simply as a "hesitation device". "Oh, I'm not sure if I could actually back that up" - but I am sure it's an exclamation of surprise in OP's example (regarding which I guess I can afford to be sure now, since it's actually become *my* example! :) – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-02-24T15:34:42.063

1+1 But Oh! might also indicate How it distresses me that they should think so! or How deeply I wish that they should think so! – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-02-24T17:19:49.507

@StoneyB: Indeed. Your first possibility being in line with the first definition of Oh in my MW link *(used to express surprise, happiness, disappointment, or sadness)*. The second being perhaps also in line with my point about the "literal" sense of should - i.e. *"They ought to think that [which would please me, but for some reason they don't, which saddens me]"* – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-02-24T17:29:23.223

@FumbleFingers I was thinking in the second of should being a volitive subjunctive. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-02-24T19:07:40.843

@StoneyB: Yes - I didn't know the actual term volitive subjunctive (in context I can infer it, but I've just googled to be sure), but that's what I understood to be the sense of your second example. Maybe it's "stretching" a bit (hence "perhaps in line with...") but volitive ("one's will, what one wants to be the case") seems to me to be pretty close to what I called the "literal" sense of should = ought. Maybe it depends how much one identifies one's own self (and will) with "objective, absolute" moral righteousness! – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-02-24T21:56:26.700

@FumbleFingers No reason you should know the term volitive subjunctive since I made it up on the spur of the moment! – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-02-24T22:04:39.663

@StoneyB: Maybe so, but I still have the link open from which I cut&pasted "one's will, what one wants to be the case", so it's obviously got legs!

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-02-24T22:33:35.583

1@FumbleFingers Hmm... Looks like I should have called it an optative subjunctive :) – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-02-24T23:06:59.377