I ran into this in a novel

"... I hope you will get over it, and live to see many young men of four thousand a year come into the neighbourhood."
"It will be no use to us if twenty such should come, since you will not visit them."
"Depend upon it, my dear, that when there are twenty I will visit them all."

Does "if twenty such should come" equal "I know the possibility of coming 20 such is very small, but if they came"?

I have searched on it and found out when we have "should" in our if-clause it denotes the small chance and unlikeliness. Then may I paraphrase "Should Jack call, tell him I'm not going to talk with him ever again" as "I know it is unlikely that Jack make a call, but if he made it, tell him I don't want to talk to him ever again"?

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    Yes, you've got it.
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 25, 2013 at 23:43
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    The interesting part of that sentence to me is the young men of four thousand a year which does not parse properly until you realize that "of four thousand a year" is a reference to yearly income.
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 25, 2013 at 23:45
  • @Jim Thank you for your response. Another friend StoneyB just told me that my interpretation is completely wrong in his answer. Are you a native English-speaker?
    – Juya
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 5:39
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    After reading @StoneyB's interpretation, I see that you were attributing the unlikeliness of the event to the use of should. I'm sorry to say that I did not read it that way. You merely asked about "if twenty such should come" being equal to "I know the possibility of 20 such persons coming is very small, but if they came" which I still maintain is correct for that instance. I do agree that the use of should does not imply a very small likelihood, rather it implies only some degree of uncertainty- the same way if does. If there were no uncertainty, you'd use when instead.
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 6:52
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    Actually, I think I agree with both Jim's comments and StoneyB's answer. (Disclaimer: I'm a non-native speaker.) Using if ... should, or should for this matter, doesn't imply the impossibility of the event. It just implies that the speaker does not really expect that that event would actually happen. But then again, in the speaker's mind: it could actually really happen, who know? Personally, I've never seen the use of if ... should or should ... much in typical writings, except for formal writings and novels or fictions. Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 7:55

1 Answer 1


Whatever your research may have told you, should in this context does not signify that the likelihood is small. You may use it with equal propriety with highly probable circumstances:

Should you find a couple of hours to spare I strongly recommend you visit the Zoo. It's one of the two or three best in the country, and it's free.

If you should be in St. Louis next week, give me a call and we'll have lunch at Balaban's.

In the case at hand, it happens that the likelihood of twenty extraordinarily wealthy young men coming into the neighborhood is small; but that is not a matter of the use of should but of the unlikelihood that so many wealthy young men would have reason to settle in this unremarkable rural community.

In your other example, it is quite possible that you expect that Jack will call, and you are making sure that your addressee does not embarrass you by summoning you to the phone.

  • 1st Thanks a lot. 2nd it looks confusing. Jim who seems a native told me beneath my question something quite different to your response. Now you look a native as well. So I am now just mixed up and don'y know which interpretations right.:(
    – Juya
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 5:36
  • Jim says he thinks you are right. good to hear that:) here are a couple of the the links led me to interpret it that way: link link
    – Juya
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 8:13
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    @user43947 When epistemic should (the one that doesn't imply duty) was in general use, it expressed merely contingency, not low probability. To day that should is rapidly disappearing, in that context it is quite likely that many individual speakers, who are not accustomed to the term, use should to express low probability. But it will not necessarily be understood by their hearers to express low probability, which is all that counts. Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 13:21
  • 1st I do thank you for adding some more info:) The point is this text is extracted from a relatively old text, that is The Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, so it truly matters to me to find out what the writer has intended to say. It is very crucial to understand the writer's intentions.
    – Juya
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 1:58

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