Ho there, it’s me again, spending my priceless time pondering the English language and how I can use it to express my faith. This morning, I was reading Psalm 103. Verse :22 reads, “Everything the Lord has made SHOULD praise Him.” And that got me thinking, about “shall” versus “should”.
Officially (if one can ever say that about the ever-evolving spoken word), should is simply the past tense of shall – so the two words should mean relatively the same thing, right? Upon further review, however, there is quite a difference.
‘Shall’ is more legal. After all, laws are written “it shall be unlawful”, not “it should be unlawful”. Shall is command. It’s mandatory. Shall is also more definite, more inevitable: something that “shall come to pass”, does. It’s expected to happen. It’s logical consequence. Shall, will.
‘Should’, however, is much less definite. Should is conditional, maybe, only probable, tensely futuristic (not even past tense). Should expresses a request in a polite manner. It’s nice. Should, may. It’s a choice. Our choice.
When I considered the present and past tenses of other verbs, the difference was even more startling. Take run/ran, for example. ‘Ran’ can actually imply a complete opposite of run. A ceasing of action – that we ran in the past but no longer. Considering the condition of the world today, that verse rings too true: everything used to praise the Lord, but not so much anymore.
Where did these words come from? Perhaps you shall (or should) find it surprising that they appear to come from different, but related words, etymologically. Shall is from an Old High German word scal meaning ought to, must. It’s akin to a Lithuanian word meaning ‘debt.’ (Every once in a word or so, dictionaries throw in ‘Lithuanian’ as if it were one of the major source languages.) Should derives from an Old English word sceolde meaning owed, was obliged to, or ought to.
I looked up “ought to”. Would you believe that ought comes from a word meaning BOTH ‘own’ and ‘owe’? You can’t get much more opposite than that! To own is to have as property. To owe indicates something not owned – yet. (Hence, the Lithuanian “debt”.) But, one can also “own a debt”, see? (You shall – er, should see?) This meaning of ‘own’ is ‘to admit that something is true’.
Heavens, this is confusing. Shall/should we? Will we or might we?
I think, though, when we all get to the bottom of it, what I own as true is that I can know I shall, but I can only suggest and urge that you should. (Because the code is more like guidelines, of course.)
Ecclesiastes 8:9 “I saw all this. I thought very hard about the things that happen in this world. I saw that people always struggle FOR THE POWER TO RULE OTHERS, and this is bad for them.” (“Them” meaning everyone.)