Non-deontic uses of "should have done"



  1. Next day we got on to more intimate subjects and I began to learn something of his life. He was now nearer fifty than forty years of age, though I should have thought him younger.

  2. I had been surprised on the evening of our first meeting to discover the nature of his work. He was engaged in selling sewing machines on commission to Indian storekeepers up and down the East African coast. It was clearly not the job for which his age and education should have fitted him. Later I learned the explanation.

Source: Too Much Tolerance, by Evelyn Waugh

I guess in the first example should have thought should be equivalent to would have thought, but I was wondering if "thought" or "had thought" could be used instead without changing the intended meaning.

As for the second example, I would think "should fit" should be used instead because obviously he was still engaged in his sales job at the narrative time. Does this should have done construction here imply an unfulfilled expectation?

If I cast this example into the present, will it be "It is clearly not the job for which his age and education should fit him."?

Kinzle B

Posted 2014-06-06T15:01:30.160

Reputation: 7 089

This seems a bit stilted, dated - is this from a historic narrative? Or perhaps a translation from another language? At the very least, this discourse is highly unusual. – jimsug – 2014-06-06T15:15:19.623

No, Evelyn Waugh is thought to be one of the century's great masters of English prose. @jimsug – Kinzle B – 2014-06-06T15:17:22.033

I see - it looks like he wrote during the sixties (at the latest!) which confirms my instincts. And I notice you didn't mention which century ;) – jimsug – 2014-06-06T15:19:45.037

1My bad, it's last century. You mean these two usages are out-of-date? One would not see them in contemporary articles? @jimsug – Kinzle B – 2014-06-06T15:22:20.750

At the very least it would be considered unusual, perhaps a bit... upper-class? It's a bit ineffable, but I can stretch my imagination to conceive of someone (probably Britsh, for some reason) using this kind of language. – jimsug – 2014-06-06T15:27:34.750

1Concurrence with @jimsug; the first thing I thought of when I imagined a situation where language of this form would be used is Downton Abbey - a British period drama set in the early 1900s. – Pockets – 2014-06-06T17:08:09.637



I can only read these passages with a somewhat colonial-era mindset - that is, the language seems to be from a few decades ago, or maybe present-day Britain (I'm not sure, I wasn't there long enough last time).

In any case:

  1. He was now nearer fifty than forty years of age, though I should have thought him younger.

    In this case, should is being used to express that the thought "he is younger than 50" was the more appropriate thought.

    As for whether or not you can remove should and have and keep the meaning: should usually reduces certainty - conveys conditionality upon another circumstance.

    However, in this case it appears to express propriety, which is a meaning that you're unlikely to glean from the text if you're not a native speaker. I would say that today, you could remove should and have the same meaning, but in the register of the pre-1960s, I'm not sure that's the case (and I believe that that's off-topic here).

    For removing have, this would be a distinction between using the simple past and the pluperfect, where the simple past merely refers to an action completed (sometimes habitually) in the past.

    The pluperfect refers to an action completed in the past, at a time earlier than the time currently being projected.

    That being the case, I think that using the simple past instead, in this context, would not change the meaning.

  2. It was clearly not the job for which his age and education should have fitted him.

    With regards to should, I would assert that it's again about propriety, rather than desire, as in the first example - they're both closer to expectation.

    These days, I think we would say suited rather than fitted, although I understand the meaning.

    I don't think using "fits" for a job is as idiomatic today, as "suits" is.

    However, if the distribution and usage is the same, I would guess that your proposed sentence would be acceptable. It's a bit of an edge case, though.


Posted 2014-06-06T15:01:30.160

Reputation: 4 208

In retrospect, "should have fitted" sounds more like a modern use, like in "The shop is closed. I should've come earlier. ". I guess it is only fitted that makes you feel the second example dated. What do you think? @jimsug – Kinzle B – 2015-09-27T09:44:02.820

@KinzleB That's more or less what I said, right? – jimsug – 2015-09-27T10:43:48.703

if I say "I would've thought it is hot in here, but it turns out to be quite cold", does this sound dated to you? – Kinzle B – 2015-09-27T11:13:31.670

Not dated, but it's still at least unusual, if not ungrammatical. You can ask a new question :) – jimsug – 2015-09-27T11:14:21.293

I will before I find out if I didn't misunderstand your answer here. :-) You meant the two "should have" in my cited examples share the sam usage? or the second one is a different one? @jimsug – Kinzle B – 2015-09-27T11:52:26.363

I didn't contemplate whether they shared the same usage, beyond the fact that they both conveyed some sense of expectation, as stated in my answer. – jimsug – 2015-09-27T11:59:24.717

But you also mentioned above "it doesn't have the connotation of expectation". I got confused, so plz clarify it for me. :-) – Kinzle B – 2015-09-27T12:15:44.180

Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– jimsug – 2015-09-27T12:26:07.760

Propriety means "socially acceptable" here? – Kinzle B – 2014-06-06T15:43:11.603

1@ZhanlongZheng This is a really tough one, for me - it's not about capability, or possibility, or desirability. But it actually, I think, doesn't have the connotation of expectation, the more I think of it. It's almost as though it's being used emphatically. Tricky one. – jimsug – 2014-06-06T15:54:30.990

1If it's so tricky even for a native speaker, maybe it's not worth considering it too much. We could wait and see other possible answers. Thx! @jimsug – Kinzle B – 2014-06-06T16:04:05.407

Yup - I'll note, if anyone decides to pursue this, that it's because of the historical context that I'm having issues - I'm not entirely sure whether it has the same connotations now as it did then, but I'd be inclined to think that it didn't, based on distribution. – jimsug – 2014-06-06T16:18:28.187


Constructions using have in this manner are indeed common in old literature:

'I should have thought him a clergyman, but for his having no Reverend here,' said I.
Source: Dickens, Charles, Hunted Down

I beg your pardon, Mr. Dashwood, but if he had done otherwise, I should have thought him a rascal.
Source: Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility

If I did not know that the play was Shakespeare's, I should have thought it must have been one of those early tragedies of blood and horror from which he is said to have redeemed the stage'?
Source: Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.

You are absolutely correct when you suggest substituting should with would - this is a very idiomatic expression and these shoulds should not be read nor taken literally. These uses of should have thought are perfectly equivalent to the use of would have thought in this line:

Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?
Source: Shakespeare, William, Macbeth V.i.39-40

In American English, at least - as jimsug has noted - this is language particular to period literature and the discussion thereof, and would never be encountered in daily conversation used in this fashion. Perhaps it may be a more natural expression in some other region (for instance, in London it is apparently fairly common to say "mind the gap" when people are boarding trains, as a way of warning them to be mindful of the gap between the train station platform and the train itself, but in the States using "mind" as a verb is already fairly uncommon, and even more so in this fashion).

The second example uses "should have" in a more modern construction, although the use of "fitted" here is rather dated. I would suggest reading it as

It was clearly not the job for which his age and education should have prepared him.

That being said, should have is not in itself a wholly antiquated phrase to use, but in modern usage is taken much more literally, and is much more common as a contraction:

You really should've studied for that test instead of staying out all night.
Yeah, I should've thought of that, but it's too late for that now.
Did you at least talk to the professor immediately, like you should've?

One might also use should have in place of should've for a more pronounced effect, as is the case for most contractions (as the Google results for "should have thought" will show).

It's worth noting that in contexts where people are not paying attention to grammar and/or spelling, it's not uncommon to see should of where should've is the correct phrase to use, because they are pronounced in more or less exactly the same manner.


Posted 2014-06-06T15:01:30.160

Reputation: 936

Hey, Samuel. I don't know if you still visit this site. I'd like to ask you a question. I've consulted jimsug. He said it was "nearer fiity", "thought him younger" and "fitted" that sounded dated. As an AmE speaker, do you feel these "should have thought" dated to your ears? @Samuel – Kinzle B – 2015-09-28T21:57:17.420

Yes; the elaborate sentence structure which adds unnecessary words in their particular fashion also contributes. – Pockets – 2015-09-29T13:52:12.630

Thx for your reply. :-) I noticed the examples you gave shares the same subject "I". I think these "should" are past form of "shall". In modern style, I would reword your examples: But for his having no Reverend, I would have thought he was a clergyman; If he had done otherwise, I would have thought he was a rascal; If I hadn't know that the play was Shakespeare's, I would have thought it must have been one of those early tragedies; If nobody had revealed he was a twisted killer, who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood on his hands? Am I right? @Samuel – Kinzle B – 2015-09-29T23:44:48.877

You would be better off asking a new question about that: I don't know enough about the mechanisms of English grammar to answer that. Going off my gut, though, the "should have [past tense verb]" construction does not use "should" as the past tense of "shall" but rather as a conditional verb. – Pockets – 2015-10-05T18:56:30.173

As a note: the third example I listed (Bradley 1905) is something of a hybrid between the dated and modern usage of the phrase (that is, it can be read both emphatically and literally and makes sense both ways). – Pockets – 2014-06-06T17:45:09.370

You say it can be read emphatically, so emphasize what? @Samuel Lijin – Kinzle B – 2014-06-14T10:49:27.150

@ZhanlongZheng, emphatically in the sense that "should have" is not to be taken literally but simply a clause that emphasizes the rest of the thought, as it is in the other examples. – Pockets – 2014-06-15T00:46:49.007