1. Next day we got on to more intimate subjects and I began to learn something of his life. He was now nearer fifty than forty years of age, though I should have thought him younger.

  2. I had been surprised on the evening of our first meeting to discover the nature of his work. He was engaged in selling sewing machines on commission to Indian storekeepers up and down the East African coast. It was clearly not the job for which his age and education should have fitted him. Later I learned the explanation.

Source: Too Much Tolerance, by Evelyn Waugh

I guess in the first example should have thought should be equivalent to would have thought, but I was wondering if "thought" or "had thought" could be used instead without changing the intended meaning.

As for the second example, I would think "should fit" should be used instead because obviously he was still engaged in his sales job at the narrative time. Does this should have done construction here imply an unfulfilled expectation?

If I cast this example into the present, will it be "It is clearly not the job for which his age and education should fit him."?

  • This seems a bit stilted, dated - is this from a historic narrative? Or perhaps a translation from another language? At the very least, this discourse is highly unusual.
    – jimsug
    Jun 6, 2014 at 15:15
  • No, Evelyn Waugh is thought to be one of the century's great masters of English prose. @jimsug
    – Kinzle B
    Jun 6, 2014 at 15:17
  • I see - it looks like he wrote during the sixties (at the latest!) which confirms my instincts. And I notice you didn't mention which century ;)
    – jimsug
    Jun 6, 2014 at 15:19
  • 1
    My bad, it's last century. You mean these two usages are out-of-date? One would not see them in contemporary articles? @jimsug
    – Kinzle B
    Jun 6, 2014 at 15:22
  • 1
    Concurrence with @jimsug; the first thing I thought of when I imagined a situation where language of this form would be used is Downton Abbey - a British period drama set in the early 1900s.
    – Pockets
    Jun 6, 2014 at 17:08

2 Answers 2


I can only read these passages with a somewhat colonial-era mindset - that is, the language seems to be from a few decades ago, or maybe present-day Britain (I'm not sure, I wasn't there long enough last time).

In any case:

  1. He was now nearer fifty than forty years of age, though I should have thought him younger.

    In this case, should is being used to express that the thought "he is younger than 50" was the more appropriate thought.

    As for whether or not you can remove should and have and keep the meaning: should usually reduces certainty - conveys conditionality upon another circumstance.

    However, in this case it appears to express propriety, which is a meaning that you're unlikely to glean from the text if you're not a native speaker. I would say that today, you could remove should and have the same meaning, but in the register of the pre-1960s, I'm not sure that's the case (and I believe that that's off-topic here).

    For removing have, this would be a distinction between using the simple past and the pluperfect, where the simple past merely refers to an action completed (sometimes habitually) in the past.

    The pluperfect refers to an action completed in the past, at a time earlier than the time currently being projected.

    That being the case, I think that using the simple past instead, in this context, would not change the meaning.

  2. It was clearly not the job for which his age and education should have fitted him.

    With regards to should, I would assert that it's again about propriety, rather than desire, as in the first example - they're both closer to expectation.

    These days, I think we would say suited rather than fitted, although I understand the meaning.

    I don't think using "fits" for a job is as idiomatic today, as "suits" is.

    However, if the distribution and usage is the same, I would guess that your proposed sentence would be acceptable. It's a bit of an edge case, though.

  • Propriety means "socially acceptable" here?
    – Kinzle B
    Jun 6, 2014 at 15:43
  • 1
    @ZhanlongZheng This is a really tough one, for me - it's not about capability, or possibility, or desirability. But it actually, I think, doesn't have the connotation of expectation, the more I think of it. It's almost as though it's being used emphatically. Tricky one.
    – jimsug
    Jun 6, 2014 at 15:54
  • 1
    If it's so tricky even for a native speaker, maybe it's not worth considering it too much. We could wait and see other possible answers. Thx! @jimsug
    – Kinzle B
    Jun 6, 2014 at 16:04
  • Yup - I'll note, if anyone decides to pursue this, that it's because of the historical context that I'm having issues - I'm not entirely sure whether it has the same connotations now as it did then, but I'd be inclined to think that it didn't, based on distribution.
    – jimsug
    Jun 6, 2014 at 16:18
  • In retrospect, "should have fitted" sounds more like a modern use, like in "The shop is closed. I should've come earlier. ". I guess it is only fitted that makes you feel the second example dated. What do you think? @jimsug
    – Kinzle B
    Sep 27, 2015 at 9:44

Constructions using have in this manner are indeed common in old literature:

'I should have thought him a clergyman, but for his having no Reverend here,' said I.
Source: Dickens, Charles, Hunted Down

I beg your pardon, Mr. Dashwood, but if he had done otherwise, I should have thought him a rascal.
Source: Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility

If I did not know that the play was Shakespeare's, I should have thought it must have been one of those early tragedies of blood and horror from which he is said to have redeemed the stage'?
Source: Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.

You are absolutely correct when you suggest substituting should with would - this is a very idiomatic expression and these shoulds should not be read nor taken literally. These uses of should have thought are perfectly equivalent to the use of would have thought in this line:

Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?
Source: Shakespeare, William, Macbeth V.i.39-40

In American English, at least - as jimsug has noted - this is language particular to period literature and the discussion thereof, and would never be encountered in daily conversation used in this fashion. Perhaps it may be a more natural expression in some other region (for instance, in London it is apparently fairly common to say "mind the gap" when people are boarding trains, as a way of warning them to be mindful of the gap between the train station platform and the train itself, but in the States using "mind" as a verb is already fairly uncommon, and even more so in this fashion).

The second example uses "should have" in a more modern construction, although the use of "fitted" here is rather dated. I would suggest reading it as

It was clearly not the job for which his age and education should have prepared him.

That being said, should have is not in itself a wholly antiquated phrase to use, but in modern usage is taken much more literally, and is much more common as a contraction:

You really should've studied for that test instead of staying out all night.
Yeah, I should've thought of that, but it's too late for that now.
Did you at least talk to the professor immediately, like you should've?

One might also use should have in place of should've for a more pronounced effect, as is the case for most contractions (as the Google results for "should have thought" will show).

It's worth noting that in contexts where people are not paying attention to grammar and/or spelling, it's not uncommon to see should of where should've is the correct phrase to use, because they are pronounced in more or less exactly the same manner.

  • As a note: the third example I listed (Bradley 1905) is something of a hybrid between the dated and modern usage of the phrase (that is, it can be read both emphatically and literally and makes sense both ways).
    – Pockets
    Jun 6, 2014 at 17:45
  • You say it can be read emphatically, so emphasize what? @Samuel Lijin
    – Kinzle B
    Jun 14, 2014 at 10:49
  • @ZhanlongZheng, emphatically in the sense that "should have" is not to be taken literally but simply a clause that emphasizes the rest of the thought, as it is in the other examples.
    – Pockets
    Jun 15, 2014 at 0:46
  • Hey, Samuel. I don't know if you still visit this site. I'd like to ask you a question. I've consulted jimsug. He said it was "nearer fiity", "thought him younger" and "fitted" that sounded dated. As an AmE speaker, do you feel these "should have thought" dated to your ears? @Samuel
    – Kinzle B
    Sep 28, 2015 at 21:57
  • Yes; the elaborate sentence structure which adds unnecessary words in their particular fashion also contributes.
    – Pockets
    Sep 29, 2015 at 13:52

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