Sunday 31 August 2008

Unqualified should is evil

I was recently discussing the use of the word should with my research supervisor. I detest the word because I believe that is often used very ambiguously.

To quote myself,

"It [the word should] seems sly to me. In my mind it makes the statement "I really want you to do this but I don't have the guts to say it to you directly". I do not mind the use of should when it is qualified. i.e. "you should take a shower if you don't want to stink". This way the intent is clearly stated and there is no ambiguity. If I tell you that "you should take a shower", it could mean that I think you should shower because I am hand-wavy dictator that does things because that's how I feel on the day or I just hate people that don't shower 15 times a day. The statement "you must shower now" clearly demonstrates that you are being draconian instead of being underhanded and ambiguous."

The word should is often used when someone thinks that it is the proper thing to do. The word proper implies someone else's idea of correctness. I strongly believe that people must not force their beliefs onto other people because it restricts different points of view. This sentence might seem to contradict itself because I am trying to force this belief onto you. However, I am only trying to convince you. You are free to take it or leave it. English is very ambiguous and this leads to my suspicion that it is pointless to form an argument in it.

If we look at different meanings of the word should then we find out how ambiguous it can be.



Maybe I should be doing my research instead of pronouncing my hatred of the word should (contradiction and bad pun intended).


  1. It could also be that you dislike being ordered around without justification. Though, the use of body language in combination with english could also complete the picture. "You should have a shower" while waving your hand near your noise for example. Your girlfriend also saying that phrase to you with added appropriate body language also gives it another meaning. Another prime example is changing it from "You" to "I", "I should have a shower" then does it need justification when its a statement?

  2. I should think that most people should be using 'should' in such a way that you should interpret it as meaning 'you should do X [because of Y]' where you should realise that [because of Y] should be inferred.

  3. :) Nice Chris. Well actually "nice" is another one of those words that are quite pointless and ambiguous. I think arguing in Arabic might be a little less misconstrued than in English :| ~sKiTTy~

  4. > where you should realise that [because of Y] should be inferred

    That's the problem. Many times the inference is very ambiguous. Often there is no inference to be made. The sentence could be more compact. For example, "do X".

  5. I'm confused, because I don't understand why ambiguity in language is bad.

  6. > I don’t understand why ambiguity in language is bad.

    Then the truth can not be known. Language is meant to convey what a person is thinking. It should be possible to unambiguously state what you are thinking. Although, this is probably never possible. If ambiguity were removed then it would remove artist language where it is supposed to be interpreted multiple ways.

  7. WHY should it be possible to unambiguously state what you are thinking? Do you mean that you want it to be possible or that technically should be this way? I'm genuinely curious.

    Also, I wasn't really asking a question so much as I was contesting your argument that a word could be intrinsically bad. Rather than just coming out and saying that it annoys you when someone is bitchy, you've blamed the language. Your issue seems to be less with language and more with bitchy people, which is understandable.


  8. Languages have developed over many thousands of years and reflect the society they came from and the nature of that part of the world. Human life and most things on this earth are ambiguous and contradictory - hence languages are that way too.

    I recon we should give all languages the axe and create a global math based langauge and all speak in 'math'. Then we could breed out all those who cant do math in one generation. Just think of the benefits! Anyhow, you think English is ambiguous, you should try Japanese.

  9. I think you should leave the musings about the intricacies of language to Arts students. It's completely improper to have someone with marketable skills and a history of gainful employment intruding upon our chosen field.

    Go write a compiler or something.

  10. QUOTE: "I strongly believe that people should not force their beliefs onto other people. This sentence might seem to contradict itself because I am trying to force this belief onto you."

    you missed the second hypocritical part of this sentence... you use the world should WITHOUT qualifying it!!!

    people should not force their beliefs onto other people BECAUSE I DON'T LIKE IT or BECAUSE I'M A HIPPY or IF THEY DON'T WANT ME TO PUNCH THEM IN THE FACE, etc.


  11. > you missed the second hypocritical part of this sentence… you use the world should WITHOUT qualifying it!!!

    Point taken and the post has been updated. It seems I have been so effected by the use of the word should that I can't even stop it myself.

  12. Very interesting discourse, I must say... full of ambiguities and paradoxes - just like humans!

    Now that I am with Uncle Mike - we can enjoy more language arguments!! And he is a 'real' scientist - like an expert in all things radioactive here in the desert at Los Almost - yet another paradox!

  13. This has all been settled by that arbiter of rules - the United States Government. Go to the United States Department of Energy web site for DOE Standards and bring up DOE-STD-1189-2008 "Integration of Safety Into the Design Process", an international best seller that I am more familiar with than I want to be. Section 1.4 on page 4 has an entire set of rules for using "must" and "should". Must has replaced "shall" over time in US Regulatory space. Really - you guys need to get out into the "real world" sometime.

    Could/Should/must/shall: you lost your mittens you naughty kittens and you SHALL have no pie.

  14. "This... is all a mistake. I'm just a compound interest program. I work at a savings and loan! I can't play these video games! "