3

In this sentence

I can't imagine any reason why he should have behaved in such an extraordinary way

Did he behave or did he not behave in an extraordinary way?
If he did, why the author didn't simply say, "...why he behaved..." instead of "...why he should have behaved..." ?

It is not clear to me why the author has used this tense rather than past simple.

  • 1
    I think I understand what you're looking for. I suggest you put your question like this: In this sentence [your sentence], did he behave or did he not behave in an extraordinary way? If he did, why the author didn't simply say, "...why he behaved..." instead of "...why he should have behaved..." If you mean what I said, please edit your question as I suggested. Thanks. – Yuri Sep 30 '16 at 6:20
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+50

Your example "should have behaved" is a kind of "affected" speech that sounds formal and a bit posh or old-fashioned, like the kind of conversation you might hear spoken by wealthy characters in a period drama (either British or American, depending on location and era). It's not common in contemporary American English conversation, and I don't think I've heard it used much on British television (other than, say, programs like Downton Abbey). So just from this small piece of dialogue I imagine the characters to be people from a particular era and social class, or at least having a certain upbringing.

To answer your question: the meaning of "should have behaved" is slightly different from "behaved". "Why [someone] should have done [something]" includes a sense of proper behavior, as in what society or your peers expect of the person. For example, "I would think he should have proposed to her by now," is a formal and posh way to say, "He should propose (marriage) to her, otherwise I think it's a breach of social obligation and etiquette."

Your sentence already refers to behavior, so the only additional element is the implication of social pressure on how someone is supposed to behave. "I can't imagine any reason why he should have behaved in such an extraordinary way," is roughly equivalent to, "I can't understand why he thought it was socially acceptable to behave in that highly unusual way."

Of course we can say the same thing in contemporary (American) English, but I would use "thought it was ok" instead, "I don't know why he thought it was ok to act like that."

On a related note, Ngram says "should have behaved" was much more common around 1820 with another spike around 1880, but otherwise is appearance is pretty consistent over the past 200 years. However it's possible that many contemporary uses are from period novels in which the authors want their characters to sound more upper-class and/or British.

  • Very interesting, Andrew! Thanks! So, a native understand much more form "should have behaved" than "behaved" alone. Would you please give some more examples? – Juya Oct 2 '16 at 6:53
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    @Juya if (for fun) you want to hear more examples of "upper-class British" English in context, I suggest you watch the television drama "Downton Abbey". The accents might be challenging (a mix of upper- middle-, and lower- class British, Irish, Scottish, American, and a few others) but you might get how the upper-class family talk compared with how the lower-class servants talk. – Andrew Oct 2 '16 at 19:09
  • @Juya another example along these lines is "shan't", "I'm afraid Elizabeth shan't be coming to dinner," to mean, "Elizabeth won't be coming to dinner". I'm not certain if "shan't" is actually an upper-class speech or just kind of a faux-upper-class speech (used by the middle class to sound more upper class), but those kind of fine distinctions are a mystery to most native speakers. – Andrew Oct 6 '16 at 15:30
  • "should have behaved" may be less common in contemporary English, at least in writing. It however doesn't sound wrong or difficult to understand for me. I think you are overly ascribing it to be "posh" or "affected". ""I would think he should have proposed to her by now" only might mean what you suggest it does in the context of subtext as the British upper-class were historically known to do (e.g. as in Downton Abbey). The sentence in plain meaning does not require "etiquette" – eques Oct 7 '16 at 12:26
  • I think this answer is pretty much correct. But I think it is helpful to add that sometimes English speakers attempt to be more polite by adding unnecessary words. – Readin Oct 9 '16 at 2:19
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Most of the time "should have" is used to talk about something we did not do, but it was a good idea to do it. Now, when we are talking about the past, we realize our mistake:

I had an accident today. I should have been more careful.

But there are other uses of "should have", for example:

To talk about past events that did not happen:

I should have let her know what was happening, but I forgot.

He should have sent everybody a reminder by email.

They should have remembered that their guests don't eat pork.

Or to speculate about events that may or may not have happened:

She should have got the letter this morning. I expect she'll give us a call about it later.

He should have arrived at his office by now. Let's try ringing him.

They should have all read that first email by this stage. It's time to send the next one.

In the sentence " I can't imagine any reason why he should have behaved in such an extraordinary way" the speaker seems to not believe that such a behavior is characteristic of the person they are talking about.

Here, the use of "should have" indicates that speaker even can't think of whatever possible reason that might make the person behave like that.

So, within the context, there's no answer to the question if he did behave like that or did not. The sentence only suggests that such an extraordinary behavior of this particular person is hardly believable at any circumstance.

  • Thank you! What do you think about Andrew's answer? – Juya Oct 3 '16 at 1:46
  • @Juya - He answered your question differently is all I can say. Anyway, all who answered meant to help you. – VictorB Oct 3 '16 at 8:58
  • Hi, sorry but I only replied to your kind comment now. ell.stackexchange.com/questions/105433/… – Mari-Lou A Oct 3 '16 at 13:56
  • Of course, Romney, I appreciate all who helped. The point is I am not a native, so I need to ask natives to make my understanding flawless. – Juya Oct 3 '16 at 15:05
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"I can't imagine any reason why he should have behaved in such an extraordinary way." Did he behave or did he not behave in an extraordinary way?

Without more context, we can't be sure. But we can infer, reading between the lines, that someone apparently claimed that he did, or at least suggested that he might have.

However, the speaker apparently finds the accusation/suggestion implausible.

The Answer written up by @Rompey is excellent as a step by step development of this construction ("he should have behaved") and is a great way to think about it.

I am writing this answer to make it clear to the OP how the sentence would be taken by a listener (in the absence of additional context).

  • To make it is clear? It seems a typo has occurred. What do you think about Andrew's answer? – Juya Oct 3 '16 at 1:48
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    @Juya - Thank you for catching the typo. Fixed. ... I see this sentence rather differently than Andrew. I live in the U.S. and have no trouble imagining someone (or myself) saying this sentence, in the context that someone claimed that the male person, perhaps a child, behaved in some strange way; and then the speaker, shocked, might express skepticism with this "why he should have" construction. That's my opinion about the sentence, for what it's worth. – J. Doe Oct 3 '16 at 1:53

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