Wednesday, July 16, 2008

'Should' is a funny word.

As part of a larger project I'm trying to define what "should" means. Not in the dictionary sense of "define", mind you. Rather, rather I'm trying to clearly articulate the components of the human condition indicated and invoked by the word "should".

There are a few different uses of the word "should".

1. pt. of shall.
2. (used to express condition): Were he to arrive, I should be pleased.
3. must; ought (used to indicate duty, propriety, or expediency): You should not do that.
4. would (used to make a statement less direct or blunt): I should think you would apologize.
For my purposes I'm interested in primarily the third use, that notion of, for lack of a better word at this moment, obligation.

While "must" and "should" may be said to be synonyms, depending on who you ask and what dictionary you consult, I think there is an important distinction to be made between the two. "Must" can indicate a very definite, obvious, required obligation. One could say that a rock, subject to gravity, must fall after being thrown upwards. One would not say that a rock, subject to gravity, should fall (in the same way as one would use "must"). Yes, one could use "should", within the gravity example, in the second sense of the word, in a conditional, expected sense. But my primary focus, as stated before, is on the third; that sense of, for lack of a better word at this point, obligation. In the rock throwing example, "must" and "should" would not be used in the same way to indicate the same thing. "Must" would be a focus on obligation while "should" would be a focus upon conditional expectations.

"Should" does not mean "obligation" in a strictly required sense. "Should" does not invoke a full notion of "behoove", of self-betterment via some task. "Should" is not a requirement, not a command, not an imperative. "Should" is some notion identified by and including concepts of duty, propriety, expediency. Certainly each of those particular words could have a particular use which denotes some concrete, demonstrable, required, obligatory notion. But my focus is upon the commonality definition of those words, a notion and definition which relies upon the greatest common sum of the parts moreso than an inclusion of the particulars of each. I think that generalized, common concept would be more of an incorporeal, social, fabricated notion of obligation based upon (I don't know what).

That's what I'm trying to figure out at the moment. First, is this observation of "should" correct? Second, what is unique to "should", as a concept? Third, assuming answers to the first and second questions, what is the foundation of "should"? From where does "shouldness" come?

I'd appreciate any ideas.

46 comments:

Roscoe said...

Would you say Should and Must are the same concept, only conditional upon the expressor's certainty?

This MUST happen and this SHOULD happen are the same statement, excepting that the speaker's certainty in this happening is varied?


It seems to me that should is cognizant of uncertainty, of doubt in the future.

Does that track with what you're getting at?

_J_ said...

I do not think that Must and Should are the same concept. The reason is seen when we change the words in different sentences.

1) The rock (must/should) fall.
2) You (must/should) go to the doctor.

The words are not performing the same task in those two sentences. The first is "definite" / "conditional expectation". The second is "requirement or 'have to'" / "some notion of behoovement or 'oughtness'".

It's not that in 2 "should" is somehow doubtful or conditional. It's offering a different sort of compulsion to visit the doctor. "Must" is obligation while "should" is something else.

I'm not looking at those particular examples, by the way. I'm looking at what "should" does overall, not just in comparison to "must". I'm trying to figure out what "should" means on its own.

I have to address the "must" relation because, I think, it's the most obvious relation a person can make to distract from what I'm doing AND that supposed relation can confuse the discussion. If someone thinks that "should" is just a floppy way of saying "must" then I can't get to where I'm trying to go.

Roscoe said...

In the context you are using them, though, they operate in the same manner.

The conditional expectation is that you follow the advice. for both "should" sentences, place an implied (If I am correct...) before the sentence.

See how they then operate the same way?

so.. wait.. okay.. rereading the original post as well as the reply..

and you're stating that Should, the conditional expectation, and Should, the implied directive are seperate concepts.

I suppose I would reply to that by pointing out that Should in both cases contains that element of doubt, relative to the it's opposite, certain number.. which, in both cases again, can be represented by must.

What am I missing here?

kylebrown said...

Ros is correct on this one. Should as we presently use it, follows the same usage as must. It has taken on a context of uncertainty along with that. Ought is probably the closer synonym used from that definition.

What I'm not sure of, though, is whether we have added the connotation of uncertainty to 'should' or if we have added the connotation of certainty to 'must'

_J_ said...

I'll simplify things and see if that helps.

MUST denotes obligation.
SHOULD does not denote obligation.

1) You must eat the cake.
2) You should eat the cake.

1 is obligatory. 2 is at best an emphatic suggestion.

Agree / Disagree?

Roscoe said...

.... I agree, contingent upon a definition of obligation.

Must suggests an action will follow, where as Should suggests an action can happen, yes.

But obligation is somewhat confusing here as well. As neither obligates the recipient of the sentence to the commanded action. Rather, they both describe an obligation that may or may not actually exist, with must describing it much more emphatically.

kylebrown said...

1. You really must go see this movie.
2. You really should go see this movie.

If you notice neither really denotes obligation, as you see obligation.

These terms have taken on these connotations of certainty and uncertainty in the last century or so. I think the more interesting question is how it came about. Did a connotation of 'must' as a certain conditional come about first or did should as an uncertain conditional come about first?

_J_ said...

Here's another point of clarification:

"Would you say Should and Must are the same concept, only conditional upon the expressor's certainty?"

Should and Must are similar in their ability to fill in a particular blank. With the cake example:
You ___ eat the cake.

In the same way, happy and sad are similar in their ability to fit into a particular blank:
I feel ____.

I'm not concerned with the similarity of the words insofar as they can fit into that blank; plenty of words/expressions fit into the blank:
"You need to..."
"You must..."
"It would behoove you to..."
"You are obligated to..."

Kyle is correct in that 'should' "follows the same usage" as 'must'. But what I'm trying to articulate is what "should" is. I do not think that "should" is a floppy version of "must" anymore than "happy" is a floppy version of "sad".

That make sense?

Roscoe said...

Which is what I'm getting at, Kyle.

Must and Should are seperate words, and with regards to their object action, they DO denote a sort of obligation.

BUT, with respect to the greater sentence and it's addressee, obligation becomes contextual.

I do think you maybe right in claiming Must requires certainty, instead of the reverse Should requiring doubt.

Roscoe said...

What you're trying to determine makes sense, but I'm not sure it can be done.

In part becuase you're forced to describe should in terms of must, or other operatives.

You're trying to find a way to define it on it's own terms.. and.. I'm not certain it HAS it's own terms.

Not that it's a floppy version of must, but that they're both operators on the level of And/Or.

Or is not a floppy version of And, but both concepts are deeply related.

_J_ said...

"If you notice neither really denotes obligation, as you see obligation."

One of the problems with "semantic" conversations, insofar as this conversation is semantic, is that we can get drawn into a discussion of colloquial uses for words. I need to avoid that.

Even in your example, though, "really should" and "really must" indicate two different things. I know that, colloquially, "really" sort of negates any obligation to "must". But there's still a difference, albeit slight in this example, between "should see movie" and "must see movie".

_J_ said...

"You're trying to find a way to define it on it's own terms.. and.. I'm not certain it HAS it's own terms."

Yup. In part, that is what I'm trying to get to at the end of this. But I have to show my work.

I don't like defining "should" in relation to other things. But if I had to relate it to "must"? I would say that, greatly simplified, "must" is one of the possible results of what happens when "should" gains proof.

In the examples I gave of sentences with blanks? I think "Should" is what goes in that hole by default. When we gain reasons "should" changes to another word in order to, in part, indicate those reasons.

_J_ said...

"I think "Should" is what goes in that hole by default."

Correction for clarification:
Not "by default", but rather it is what goes in the hole before we have proof, demonstrable necessity, etc.

Roscoe said...

I've been talking with Kyle.. and.. I'm finding myself swayed to his argument that they're the same exact word, only denoting emphasis.


Reasoning being if you add the negative to it

"This should not happen. and Yhis must not happen."

Those ARE the same sentence, only with a change in emphasis.

What I took to be obligation in the positive variations, upon reflection, seems to be a comment upon a rules context extent to the sentence. "A Rock Must Fall" doesn't mean the rock will fall, only that if gravity works, as we assume it does, it will fall.

Does that make sense?

kylebrown said...

"Should and Must are similar in their ability to fill in a particular blank. With the cake example:
You ___ eat the cake."


It is more than that. Both must and should denote that it would be a better outcome to eat the cake than not. Neither must nor should denote that the cake will be eaten. Must is merely an emphasized form of should and/or should is merely a deemphasized form of must.

_J_ said...

"Both must and should denote that it would be a better outcome to eat the cake than not."

Entirely no.

That implication is what, at some point in the future, I will point to as a misunderstanding which belies etc.

"Should eat the cake" does not indicate better or worse.

"It would behoove you to eat the cake" indicates that a person would be behooved by cake consumption. "Should eat the cake" does not denote "behoove".

_J_ said...

""This should not happen. and Yhis must not happen."

Those ARE the same sentence, only with a change in emphasis.
"

Those are not the same sentence because of that emphasis.

"should not happen" and "must not happen" are similar in their indicating "not happening" and their invoking emphasis for that not happening.

But the important distinction is the nuanced difference between "must" and "should" and what those words indicate.

_J_ said...

The problem might be that my entire focus is on that subtle distinction while others may ignore the subtle distinction.

So "must not eat the cake" and "should not eat the cake" from my view are entirely different.

To others the focus is on "not eat the cake". So to them "must" and "should" are insignificant, given that the primary concern is not eating cake.

kylebrown said...

The problem is they are undefinably different levels conditionality, such that I don't think anyone could ever truly define them separate of one another.

Roscoe said...

I'm thinking Kyle's right here..

worse, that your entire original point is.. not precisely wrong, but flawed.

Becuase that "subtle distinction" isn't so much being ignored as it is entirely contextual.

See.. you're focusing on the word, to the exclusion entirely of what it operates upon. And that's a mistake, because both words are verbs requiring objects.

it doesn't matter what is placed behind the verb, that can just be a placeholder. The point is that the words are meaningless without that anteceedent.

So to find the difference between them, you have to look at how they operate upon that object. And by Kyle's examples, they operate exactly the same. The only differences stem from outside context, not internal operation.

And that internal distinction between the two is what you're looking to find, if I understand you correctly.

Roscoe said...

going back to your initial example, in the first comment,

1) The rock (must/should) fall.
2) You (must/should) go to the doctor.


You state that the first is definitive vs. a conditional expectation, while the second is a requirement vs. an beneficial expectation.

I worked with that, but in arguing with Kyle, I was convinced that in both cases, the definitive nature of the first and the requirement of the second, both meanings are dependant entirely upon outside expectation.

Your first meaning of the Must/Should, the must is not definitive, excepting to the speaker. It is definitive, only if the speaker is correct in the assumptions that lead him to the statement.

Kyle made this point by asking if Must is a temporal variation on Will.

Try replacing either word with will.

The rock must fall does not mean the same thing as the rock will fall. When presented this way, the later is definitive, the former is expectational.

_J_ said...

Part of the problem is that auxiliary verbs are the bastion of particular contraries. So, sure, we can compile a list of situations in which "must" and "should" are tantamount to the same thing and then mistakenly extract from those particulars a universal rule of similarity.

Here's the problem:
Should:
1. pt. of shall.
2. (used to express condition)
3. must; ought (used to indicate duty, propriety, or expediency)
4. would

Must:
1. to be obliged or bound to by an imperative requirement
2. to be under the necessity to; need to
3. to be required or compelled to, as by the use or threat of force
4. to be compelled to in order to fulfill some need or achieve an aim
5. to be forced to, as by convention or the requirements of honesty
6. to be or feel urged to; ought to
7. to be reasonably expected to; is bound to
8. to be inevitably certain to; be compelled by nature:
9. (verb) to be obliged; be compelled
10. Archaic: We must away.
11. (adjective) necessary; vital
12. (noun) something necessary, vital, or required

Yes, there are similarities between must and should, no one could argue that there are not. But when you assess the words on their own, consult their definitions, and reflect on them? It's not possible to argue that they are they same given, at the very least, should's 4 part definition and must's 12 part definition. Which is not a reliance on dictionary definitions so much as an encapsulation of the nuanced differences between each word.

The page for must summarizes the situation quite nicely:
"1. Must, ought, should express necessity or duty. Must expresses necessity or compulsion: I must attend to those patients first. Soldiers must obey orders. Ought (weaker than must) expresses obligation, duty, desirability: You ought to tell your mother. Should expresses obligation, expectation, or probability: You are not behaving as you should. Children should be taught to speak the truth. They should arrive at one o'clock."

Must is necessity, duty, compulsion. Should is obligation, expectation, probability.

In a colloquial, uninformed, sense people can use the words interchangeably (must/should see movie). But if we assess the words on their own, assess and discern their meaning from their actual meaning as opposed to their colloquial useage? We can see the difference.

kylebrown said...

The paragraph you provided proves my point. Must, ought, and should all represent the same concept, but with varying levels of emphasis. This is what I have been saying all along.

They all represent a form of conditionality, with the desired outcome being the point which is emphasized more or less by the strength of the auxiliary verb.

_J_ said...

"The paragraph you provided proves my point. Must, ought, and should all represent the same concept, but with varying levels of emphasis. This is what I have been saying all along."

But that's what I've been saying all along. "Happy" and "Sad" fill the same concept of "Feeling"; they are simply variations upon that "feeling". Must, Ought, and Should all fill that concept of "____". The question is the basis for that "_____".

To use "must" the "___" has to be X, but to use "should" the "___" has to be Y.

"They all represent a form of conditionality"

It's not conditionality. The difference between the words is their foundation and the motivation they are invoking. Is the foundation duty, propriety, expediency, a force, a feeling, an inevitability, an obligation, an assured requirement?

That's what I've been trying to figure out all along. From the OP:
"First, is this observation of "should" correct? Second, what is unique to "should", as a concept? Third, assuming answers to the first and second questions, what is the foundation of "should"? From where does "shouldness" come?"

To use your phrasing, the "varying levels of emphasis" is what I'm trying to determine. If must, ought, and should have varying levels of emphasis what is the level of emphasis unique to "should"? In my phrasing: What is the foundation of "should", what denotes "shouldness", what is utilized in invoking "shouldness"?

Jane says "You must go to work."
Jane says "You have to go to work."
Jane says "You should go to work."

What is should? Not necessarily in relation to "must" and "have to", but rather when we recognize the difference, what, then, does "should" mean? What is, in your phrasing, the emphasis upon when Jane says "should"?

Roscoe said...

... the words meanings are derived FROM their usage in this case, though.

That's what Kyle and I are saying.

You're arguing that the words are different precisely becuase they have differing contextual connotations.

Not different meanings, but that they convey differing implications.

The words express varying levels of emphasis, but none of the words express an inevitability, an outcome that has to occur. Each expresses a possibility, an outcome that is likely to occur, or one that is required to occur, for some unprovided context.

A side note, you're sliding into personal attacks here. An uninformed person? This is something I had planned on talking to you about in person... You've gotten sloppy, recently, and moved to the bombastic "if you don't agree with me, you don't understand me, you're talking about something else, and you're a moron" type statements. Not always all of those, and not always to the same degree. But you have become dismissive and insulting, without, I think, quite meaning to.

becuase it's obviously not only possible, but logical, to argue that they ARE words with the same functionality and meaning, and to do so from an informed position.

_J_ said...

"but none of the words express an inevitability, an outcome that has to occur. Each expresses a possibility, an outcome that is likely to occur, or one that is required to occur, for some unprovided context."

I don't think the words are concerned with inevitability. I think they can be, but I don't think they primarily are.

-The rock must fall.
-The rock should fall.

There is inevitability involved in that, yes. But:
- You must go to work.
- You should go to work.

That's not inevitability. That's a command. The question is the foundation of that command. "must go to work" denotes obligation, a requirement. "should go to work" denotes...perhaps an obligation, perhaps a requirement, perhaps something else?

That's what I want to talk about: The foundation of the notion.

"the words meanings are derived FROM their usage in this case, though."

Ok. We can do it that way.

1) You must go to work.
2) You should go to work.

Given their useage, what is the meaning? What does "must" mean? What does "should" mean? They are not the same, so what is the difference?

_J_ said...

"it's obviously not only possible, but logical, to argue that they ARE words with the same functionality and meaning,"?

In particular situations? In colloquial expressions of "You really should/must see this movie."? Yes, there is a degree of similiarity or, if you like, similiarity.

But overall? They are not the same words with the same meaning.

And rather than focus on their similarites I'm trying to manifest a conversation which focuses upon their differences.

An example I'm hesitant to use is cats and dogs. Cats and dogs are both mammals, both have four legs, both have earflaps, both have etc.

But what's different?

That's what I'm trying to talk about. Now that we have ample discussion on how "must" and "should" are similiar how are "must" and "should" different?

Unless you and Kyle and arguing that "must" and "should" are at all times, in all situations, in the same way, the same thing. But I wouldn't expect either of you to make that argument.

1) You must go to work.
2) You should go to work.

Do you think those two sentences are exactly the same in meaning, intent?

Roscoe said...

Okay, but if you're talking about the word "overall", you're no longer talking about the word, but the common contextual usages of the word.

Basically, Kyle and I ARE arguing that the words have the same meaning, in all situations. What changes in those situations are context and intensity.

The dictionary.com definition for the archaic use of must as a verb on it's own kinda makes this point. The example of it is "Do I have to do X (go to town or something)? I must, I suppose."

At best, must carries with it an implication of that failure to complete the attendant action will result in catastrophe or the dissolution of the external context.

Which.. honestly.. goes back to my initial post that they are the same concept, excepting for certainty.

Roscoe said...

Before wrangling with Kyle on this, I was closer to your boat,, in that they are separate concepts.. perhaps incestously related, but separate.

But I'm fairly certain I was wrong, now. All the examples I can use are actually predicated upon external assumptions and basically result in the same action.

We'd be more akin to asking what's different between a Golden Lab and a Chocolate Lab here. What's different? Well, one's brighter than the other.

_J_ said...

"Basically, Kyle and I ARE arguing that the words have the same meaning, in all situations. What changes in those situations are context and intensity."

So you think

1) You must go to work.
2) You should go to work.

Have exactly, 100%, fully the same meaning? That the only difference between the two sentences is their length, given the number of letters, spaces, and punctuation used?

kylebrown said...

So you think

1) You must go to work.
2) You should go to work.

Have exactly, 100%, fully the same meaning? That the only difference between the two sentences is their length, given the number of letters, spaces, and punctuation used?

Come on, do you read nothing that I write? They don't have exactly 100% the same meaning, because included in meaning is the context of emphasis.

Must has a greater emphasis than sh ould, so obviously they don't mean exactly the same thing, but hey do mean roughly the same thing. Think similar as opposed to equal. They both denote that the proper thing to do is to go to work. They both also leave an option of not going to work. Compare 'must' with 'will' and you will see what I'm saying. Must never means that the targetd action will be completed, only that it needs to be for some (often implied) outcome to occur, thus conditionality.

They both add contionality to the targeted verb. Rather than:

"You go to work"

It instead becomes:

"You must go to work"

which implies a choice and thus conditionality.

kylebrown said...

That quote was supposed to quoted...

_J_ said...

"Must has a greater emphasis than should, so obviously they don't mean exactly the same thing, but they do mean roughly the same thing."

For my purposes if they don't mean "exactly the same thing" then it doesn't matter that they mean "roughly the same thing".

That's why I was getting hung up and confused by your position. You acknowledged that they were different but would then say things like:

"The problem is they are undefinably different levels conditionality, such that I don't think anyone could ever truly define them separate of one another."

So, from my perspective, it was going back and forth between "same" and "different". Of course the words are similar, but my point is that they are not exactly the same.

Since they are not exactly the same then what is the difference? "Must" has greater emphasis, but what is that emphasis upon? And is it "emphasis" or something else?

With the job example, what does "should" mean? And to attempt to answer that question I'm focusing upon the justifications and evidence offered to support the claim.

That's where I think the difference is. We agree that "must" is "greater", that it has something of a more solid, substantial backing.

But what is the backing of "should"?

kylebrown said...

I don't think you read that sentence right.

"The problem is they are undefinably different levels conditionality, such that I don't think anyone could ever truly define them separate of one another."

What that sentence means, is that they are different levels of conditionality upon a target verb's completion. The difference between the two is such that must has more emphasis upon the target verb being completed. The problem is defining what "more emphasis" means. We only know it to be more.

It would be like saying we have two numbers A and B. A is greater than B. Then from that simple statement trying to identify the exact numbers A and B represent. We are incapable of defning A without B and B without A. We only know that A is more than B.

_J_ said...

There we go. That makes sense.

_J_ said...

Perhaps that A to B comparison is helpful.

There are plenty of words that fit into that slot where "should" and "must" operate. If we were to compare them all, run out that A to B comparision with every word? I think "Should" would be the weakest.

You ought to
You must
You have to
You would be behooved to
You need to
You are required to
You are obligated to

Do we think that "Should" is the weakest word to put in that space? The most ephemeral?

When I think about it? I think "Run!" is stronger than "Should Run!"; should actually detracts from the compulsion, command, whatever to do a certain verb.

kylebrown said...

Of the list of modal verbs:
can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would, and must

I would say that might and may are the weakest.

and yes outside of will, all of the modal verbs actually reduce the certainty of a verb.

_J_ said...

I wouldn't think "might" or "may" are the same sort of thing as "should".

You might go to work.
You should go to work.

I think those are saying two different things. "Might" considers the likelihood of going to work. "Should" is more a notion of compelling someone to go to work.

_J_ said...

I need to point out, also, that I'm concerned with the "compelling someone to do something" aspect of the words.

kylebrown said...

then yes, should shows the least amount of compulsion amongst them.

Roscoe said...

Might and May are still compulsory, though.

Might you not go to work now?

You may not commit a crime.

_J_ said...

"Might and May are still compulsory, though.

There is a difference between "are" and "can be".

I should think you would know that.

(See what I did there?)

Roscoe said...

My point is, again, you're conflating contextual information, while looking for some sort of static definition.

If a thing CAN BE, then it occasionally IS, and shouldn't be discounted, is my point.

We're already to the point where we acknowledge that the words are contextually defined, and in variance. Why would you go from there to an attempt to try and make a concrete classification?

Need I point out that Must, Should, and the rest of the crew may also be non-compulsory to you?

_J_ said...

"Why would you go from there to an attempt to try and make a concrete classification?"

We agree on a formula such as A < B.

We then focus primarily on the "less than".

We then explore a plethora of situation of A and B in which A and B are used in the same way and in each situation quantify the degree to which A < B.

Once we do that, once we understand what must implies moreso than should and then construct an elaborate list of "Should does not mean..." based upon that primary, agreed upon observation, that A < B we can find what "should" means given that there is a finite number of possibilities.

Should and Must mean something different, given that Should < Must. So, we find the things Must means, subtract those from the finite number of possibilities, and we're left with what Should means.

Roscoe said...

Excepting that we've allready shown that the meanings of Should AND Must are both entirely contextually defined, and as such, HAVE no set, concrete, finite possibilities.

Must is greater than Should, but what Must and Should are? is indefinable. We can't show HOW Must is greater than Should, in every sense, becuase they are fluid concepts. They don't retain a single defined meaning, instead they take on their meaning by way of what they are operating upon and inside of.

_J_ said...

"Must is greater than Should, but what Must and Should are? is indefinable. We can't show HOW Must is greater than Should, in every sense, becuase they are fluid concepts."

They are not fluid if there is a set heirarchy of meaning to them. If we can identify that Must is greater than Should then we can utilize that assessment to discern the degree to which it is greater.

We can't make a value judgement (must>should) and then claim that we can't make a value judgement (by how much). Those two judgements are fundamentally the same. If we can recognize a difference we can quantify that difference.

You must go to work.
You should go to work.

Must denotes an obligation based upon a requirement. Should could be an obligation, it might be required in some manner, but it is be a different sort of obligation or requirement. Should recognizes the degree to which an act is not entirely required whereas must focused upon its being required, essential.

I think that the problem is that should is fundamentally incorporeal, baseless. We can't quantify it because it is not quantified. We can't determine its base because it has none.

Should invokes a reasoning, a base, which is neither universal nor demonstrable. Should is subjective, contextual, relative.

Must has a base which is recognized to be significant. One can certainly ignore it, as one can ignore should, but to do so is to go against a thing far more significant than the base of should.

Should has a base on duty, propriety, expediency, social concepts. Must has a base in reality, in something demonstrable with real-world implications that has a far greater impact than merely ignoring propriety.