"should/ would" opinions please

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Apr 28 19:01:18 UTC 2013

On Apr 28, 2013, at 12:50 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:

> Here's an interesting "should/would" question with a dash of "might" for
> those more attuned to 19th C. nuance than I am.
> In an 1881 essay on the battle of Shiloh, Ambrose Bierce concludes by
> waxing poetic in the following terms:
> "Ah, Youth, there is no such wizard as thou! …[G]ild for but one moment the
> drear and somber scenes of to-day, and I will willingly surrender an other
> [sic] life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh."
> I can't believe (from the broader context) he means that he "should" have
> thrown his life away; merely that he "might" have (by being killed).  (The
> "other" life involved, in contrast to his adventurous youth, is his drab
> post-bellum existence.)

I would (or should) take this to be the (now) British conditional "should" corresponding to the U.S. "would".  There's no moral or deontic force here involving what would have been good to do, but just a consideration of alternative outcomes (or possible worlds, if you're a semanticist).  The difference then comes down to "would" vs. "might", as you suggest, and "would" makes it seem more inevitable than "might", i.e. how likely it is that Bierce would have died at Shiloh (if things had worked out a bit differently).


> Whatever Bierce may mean, I don't feel that my sprakgefool is sharp enough
> to determine the nuances of "should" and "would" in this case.
> How do others interpret Bierce's meaning?
> JL
> --
> "If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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