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  • Real Grammar Quiz, Question 2: Would or Should?

    Posted by on October 22, 2014

    Macmillan Dictionary – Real GrammarReal Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan Dictionary, Real Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.

    In the coming months, we’ll be bringing you blog posts and videos that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. There’s even a Real Grammar quiz for you to try.

    ______________

    In the second question of our Real Grammar quiz, we asked whether it is better to use would or should when the subject is “I” or “We”. The choice was between

    I would like to go to the concert and I should like to go to the concert.

    Our conclusion was that – although both sentences are perfectly acceptable – I would like is the preferred option. Should was once common in sentences like this, but it is rarely used nowadays.

    There is an old prescriptive rule which says that will and would go with second and third person subjects (you, he, she, it, and they), but when the subject is I or We, you are supposed to use shall or should. According to William Strunk, whose Elements of Style remains influential in the U.S.,

    A conditional statement in the first person requires should, not would [as in]
    I should not have succeeded without his help.

    In its entry for shall, the OED notes that:

    Since the middle of the 17th c. the general rule (subject to various exceptions) has been that mere futurity is expressed in the first person by shall, in the second and third by will.

    The rule is observed by T.S. Eliot in his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

    I grow old … I grow old …
    I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

    That was written in 1920. But half a century later, in their Grammar of Contemporary English (Longman 1972), Quirk et al. are more equivocal. Commenting on the use of will and shall when making predictions about the future, they say:

    Prescriptive usage has exerted considerable influence in the direction of using shall [in 1st person constructions] (p87)

    An interesting case of a prescriptive rule being explained descriptively! The authors simply refer to the prescriptivist case, but without suggesting that they agree with it.

    Now let’s have a look at the evidence. Analyzing our most recent corpus data, we find just over 5000 instances of I should like and We should like, but that compares with over 275,000 cases of I would like and We would like - making the version with would over 50 times more frequent. (Of course, should has several other uses – such as expressing obligation – where its use with I or we is natural and appropriate: It’s getting late, and we really should leave.)

    In the case of will and shall, the picture is a little less clear-cut: I will, immediately followed by an infinitive, appears about 1.4 million times in our most recent corpus, as against 100,000 or so instances of I shall in the same construction: will is clearly the preferred choice, but not by such a huge margin. This is partly accounted for by the relatively frequent use of I shall and We shall in academic writing:

    In evaluating Nagel’s claim, I shall begin by discussing the hemispheric duality of the human brain.
    In the next chapter, we shall see whether insubordination in science was encouraged by insubordination in religion.

    Indeed, in the British Academic Written English Corpus (BAWE), the I shall construction is over twice as frequent as in our general-purpose corpus, so it can be seen as a convention of this particular genre.

    In the Real Grammar quiz, however, the context of the question was a conversation, and in situations like this, expressions like I shall go or I should like to go sound formal and old-fashioned. But in most conversations, the question doesn’t even arise, because we are more likely use contractions: I would like to go is certainly more natural than I should like to go – but in contexts like this, a simple I’d like to go is the most natural choice of all.

    To read more about Real Grammar, keep a close eye on our Real Grammar page. You can catch up with the videos on our YouTube channel, where the third video in the series is now live. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar”.

     

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  • Life skills tip of the week: emphasis

    As part of this year’s pragmatics series, we bring more useful content and tips from the Macmillan Dictionary on expressing yourself. The previous language tip looked at ways of persuading someone to do something. This week’s tip looks at just a few of the very many ways of adding emphasis to what you say and […]

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  • Word roots and routes: pair

    Next in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary. Pair (noun and verb) has made its way to us from Latin pār, meaning ‘equal’. As well as describing a set of two identical or near-identical items – e.g. a pair of shoes, a pair of eyes – it […]

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  • Language and words in the news – 17th October, 2014

    This post contains a selection of links related to language and words in the news. These can be items from the latest news, blog posts or interesting websites related to global English, language change, education in general, and language learning and teaching in particular. Feel free to contact us if you would like to submit a link […]

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  • Language tip of the week: public school

    In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. These tips are usually based on areas of English which learners find difficult, e.g. spelling, grammar, collocation, synonyms, usage, etc. This week’s language tip helps with the differences in usage in American and British English of the term […]

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  • Life skills tip of the week: ways of warning someone

    Learning about pragmatics and how to express yourself successfully is a useful life skill, said Michael Rundell in January when he introduced the new pragmatics series on Macmillan Dictionary. The series is part of the Macmillan Life Skills campaign, offering free resources for English language students and teachers each month. As part of the series, we’ll bring more useful content and […]

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  • Enthusing about freedom of usage

    Writing about back-formation earlier this year, I said that enthuse – a verb back-formed from enthusiasm – occupied a grey area of acceptability. This area is worth mapping in more detail, since much of what people say about enthuse applies to other words and usages, and offers insights into what Macmillan Dictionary calls real grammar. […]

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  • Language and words in the news – 10th October, 2014

    This post contains a selection of links related to language and words in the news. These can be items from the latest news, blog posts or interesting websites related to global English, language change, education in general, and language learning and teaching in particular. Feel free to contact us if you would like to submit a link […]

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  • Language tip of the week: communicate

    In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. In this new series of  language tips we will be looking at how metaphor is used to express some common concepts in English. This week’s  tip looks at the area of communication: When people communicate, it is as […]

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  • Life skills tip of the week: persuasion

    As part of this year’s pragmatics series, we bring more useful content and tips from the Macmillan Dictionary on expressing yourself. The previous language tip looked at ways of using understatement. This week’s tip gives some ways of persuading someone to do something. It might be a good idea if/It might be better if: a […]

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  • On the subject of whodunnit

    A typical English sentence consists, as a minimum, of a subject followed by a verb: They left. If there’s an object, it comes after the verb: They left town. Other elements can be added in various positions: They left town. They all left town. They all left town yesterday. Apparently they all left town yesterday. […]

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  • Language and words in the news – 3rd October, 2014

    This post contains a selection of links related to language and words in the news. These can be items from the latest news, blog posts or interesting websites related to global English, language change, education in general, and language learning and teaching in particular. Feel free to contact us if you would like to submit a link […]

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  • Language tip of the week: college

    In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. These tips are usually based on areas of English which learners find difficult, e.g. spelling, grammar, collocation, synonyms, usage, etc. This week’s language tip helps with the differences in usage in American and British English of the word […]

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Recent Comments

Recent Comments
  • Posted by Liz to Life skills tip of the week: ways of saying 'I don't know' on October 21, 2014 Hi Ahmad. You're right about the meaning of these phrases. I actually usedthem as an example of a way of saying you are unsure, in the life skills post on that topic: http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/life-skills-tip-of-the-week-saying-you-are-unsure-about-something Of course saying you don't know something and saying you are unsure about it are pretty similar concepts so it's not surprising that there is some overlap.

  • Posted by Ahmad Al-Wahy to Life skills tip of the week: ways of saying 'I don't know' on October 21, 2014 What about this (from your dictionary -- Macmillan!) '... "you never can tell" or "you can never tell" spoken used for saying that it is impossible to be certain about something You can never tell how long these meetings will last.' Perhaps this is a more up-to-date version of "No one can tell"?

  • Posted by Stan to The wacky world of ‘wack’ and ‘whack’ on October 21, 2014 Ian: There is now, thanks to you. John: It's pretty wack that whack's cartoonish connotations belie its probable origins in physical violence. I didn't know that about whelk – another interesting case.

  • Posted by John Cowan to The wacky world of ‘wack’ and ‘whack’ on October 16, 2014 Wacky, however, is < whack 'fool', presumably one who's been whacked on the head. So the spelling indicates an etymological distinction that doesn't actually exist. Whelk has a similar story: etymologically it should be welk.

  • Posted by Ian Mac Eochagáin to The wacky world of ‘wack’ and ‘whack’ on October 15, 2014 And not a mention of paddywhackery!