July 2014
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Should: A Weasel Word

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

This is a minor quibble in a month when I ought to be writing about Hobby Lobby or Israel, but I am thinking about the way in which the word “should” in moral and political discourse often serves as a kind of door-stop almost devoid of any actual meaning.

In 1978, I spent six weeks traveling in Kenya with a puckish acquaintance who constantly riffed on shall/should. If you said something like “I wish I had a better pair of binoculars”, he would, imitating a Disney fairy, reply: “And so you shall!” But if you told him he should visit Amboseli, or own a copy of A Field Guide to East African Birds, he would reply: “Why, will I be a better person for it?” (I ran into him recently after many years, and he had no memory of these cute behaviors.)

“Should” as a part of speech is an auxiliary verb, always used with another: “should do”, “should own”, “should see” and so forth. It has become detached from its original meaning as the past tense of “shall” in the sense of “seek/sought”. “Shall” is performative in the category proposed by language philosopher J.L. Austin, in that it is usually used to spur action that will happen immediately (my friend’s variation was phony performative language, as if I said to a couple on the subway “I pronounce you man and wife”, an Austin example). “Should” has evolved so that is used usually as a form of recommendation, meaning the action suggested is highly optional. I found an interesting essay on its use in "quality management system" documentation: "'Incoming materials should be inspected before they are accepted in warehouse' is a recommendation by the document writer. It allows the document users to make their own judgment calls.” “Should” therefore expresses "a conditional or contingent act or state … or moral obligation".

In a site for software documentation writers, which I couldn’t find a second time, there was a recommendation to try omitting the word “should” from all writing. On another discussion board, the consensus was that “should”, being vague and conditional, is not appropriate for use in contracts. In an inspirational essay (a genre of which I am normally highly suspicious), the writer observes: "Should is a reflection of the values and expectations of the should-er rather than any real measurement of the should-ee." Another blogger similarly says: "Our shoulds indicate an expectation of behavior — usually from someone else."

These writers are identifying the basic ambiguity of "should", which, run through the neurolinguistic translator, often means no more than “I want you to”. I did a Google search on "Obama should" and popped up the following: Should President Obama visit the Texas border?, Obama Should Counter John Boehner’s Lawsuit and Joni Ernst: ‘Impeachment’ of Obama should be on the table.

All of these uses of "should" are inherently fuzzy. They all suggest some kind of vague moral imperative, presumably derived from an unspecified rule-set. The closer you look, the more they resolve into a different kind of statement entirely. The first article is really about "What would happen if the President visited the border". The second is "Here’s How the President Might Counter Boehner’s Lawsuit". The third is "I think the President should be impeached".

That vague, unspecified ruleset hovering in the background is dangerous to moral discourse. It ties in easily to mushy concepts of natural rights, moral rules that are tautologies because derived from nothing but themselves. When my friend asked "Why?" in response to "should", he was highlighting this. Almost every time someone says “should”, there is a whole policy discussion which has been skipped. If we are sitting at a table together working out the ethical rules we want to observe while living in a community together, we can discuss in detail the reasoning for each, who is benefited and harmed, what realistic effects the rule has in the real world and whether those are desirable or not. “Should” tends to short-circuit that discussion.

"Should" suggests there is a moral mandate of some sort hovering in the background. Parsing sentences with "should" typically reveals there is none other than the writer's subjective and vague preference. When an actual ruleset pops up, it may be one we don't agree with; "should" suggests a degree of consensus where there isn't.

In a vaguely post-modern way, the use of "should" reveals an insecurity of which most people are probably unconscious. By picking "should" instead of "must", we are hedging our bets, intimating our advice is optional, trying to communicate what we regard as a moral imperative while leaving ourselves a line of retreat.

I think the suggestion was a good one: whenever I am tempted to use "should" in a sentence (as I have done continually in writing for the Spectacle) I will look for another word instead. That will help clarify my thinking to myself, and aid me in communicating more clearly with you. Almost any substitute tends to improve the meaning of a sentence. "Should is a Weasel Word" is a better sentence than "You Shouldn’t Use Should".