I am a non-native English speaker. I have been learning English for a few months. Some people say that "should" is the past form of "shall" but some people say that it is not true. I have asked this question because I was reading a novel and in the novel I found something which looks wrong to me.

From the novel:

I managed to nod. I should say something. I just wasn't sure what to say. He was waiting on me to speak. “I like them,” I blurted out nervously.

As per my opinion:

I managed to nod. I should have said something. I just wasn't sure what to say. He was waiting on me to speak. “I like them,” I blurted out nervously.

My question is that the writer should not have used "should" for the past action. It should have replaced by "should have".

  • 1
    I'm not comfortable with main clause should as a past tense form. Should have sounds okay.
    – user230
    May 19 '14 at 17:23

To follow her narrative in the novel (to me, that I sounds like a young lady), you can think like this:

I should say something.
= She thought that it would be appropriate to say something.

That is, this thought came to her mind before the moment she thought she should say something.

Compare it with:

I should have said something.
= She thought that it would have been appropriate if she had said something.

That is, at the time she thought it, saying something would be the act that she should already have done. In other words, that thought would come to her mind after the moment that she should have said it.

  • I agree with you. I also had the same point, but I think in that case the writer could show it (should say) specially (double quotation marks or single quotation marks), like a direct or indirect speech example. So readers could understand it better. Does it make sense?
    – user62015
    May 18 '14 at 15:43
  • No, the text is good as it is, without any quotation marks. Think of it as "future in the past". In that moment in the past, she was thinking into the future. In this case, it's a very near future, an immediate one. May 18 '14 at 15:47
  • Thanks. You made it clear. I appreciate your help a lot.
    – user62015
    May 18 '14 at 15:54
  • No problem. I'm glad that it's helpful. :-) May 18 '14 at 16:07
  • As an aside, it might be the best to understand "shall" and "should" separately. In indirect speech (present tense), we usually turn shall into will, should, or can, depending on the intended meaning. And if we need to backshift in reporting, usually We shall/should ... would be reported as They said they would .... Also, we can use should as the backshifted version of should too. For example, I thought 'I should do it'. would become I thought I should do it. No tense shifting needed. May 19 '14 at 17:16

I found this entry in Practical English Usage by Michael Swan.

519 should (2): obligation, deduction etc.
3 past use: I knew that I should ...; I was supposed to ...

Should is used unchanged in past indirect speech, if should was used in direct speech.
    I thought 'I should write to Jane.' --> I knew that I should write to Jane.
In other cases, should + infinitive is not normally used to talk about the past. Instead, we can use for example was/were supposed to ... (see 572).
    It was going to be a long day. I was supposed to clean up all the stables, and then start on the garden. (NOT ... I should clean up ...)
    She was supposed to be in her office, but she wasn't. (NOT She should be in her office, but she wasn't.)

Based on this entry (especially the last example), I believe that the other answer of mine is incorrect, but I couldn't delete it because it has already been accepted.

The main reason is that the narrative doesn't sound like something in past indirect speech. So, it should be rewritten as:

I was supposed to say something.

I also believe that rewriting it with should have said is possible:

I should have said something.


Although should is technically the past of shall it is rarely, if ever, used in that manner. The only time this would be an issue would be during reported speech.

Direct speech: "Shall we go for a walk?" Reported speech: John asked whether we should go for a walk.

However, the reported speech is more likely to be expressed: John suggested going for a walk. Direct speech: "Shall I help you with that?" Reported: John offered to help her with her assignment.

In other cases, should is used to express the opinion of the speaker as to what the right thing to do would be. A sentence such as "I think you should get more exercise," means that the speaker's opinion is that getting more exercise is the right thing to do.

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