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Mr. Brocklehurst, I believe I intimated in the letter which I wrote to you three weeks ago, that this little girl has not quite the character and disposition I could wish: should you admit her into Lowood school, I should be glad if the superintendent and teachers were requested to keep a strict eye on her, and, above all, to guard against her worst fault, a tendency to deceit.
(Jane Eyre)

I guess should can be replaced by were, or if. What are the semantic differences between all three of them?

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It’s a matter of degrees of formality. ‘Should you admit her . . .’, . ‘Were you to admit her . . .’ and ‘If you were to admit her . . . .’ are all particularly formal. The informal, and more usual, construction would be ‘If you admitted her . . .’

The sentence is basically an instance of what is sometimes taught to foreign learners of English as the Second Conditional. The differences in style can perhaps be better appreciated by stepping away from this example from nineteenth century fiction, and looking at a sentence that might occur in contemporary English. Suppose that I have a friend who wants to catch a train. I know that he could if he hurried, but I also know that he won’t, because he’s unfit. In those circumstances, I would normally say

If you ran, you’d catch the train.

The three formal versions, equivalent to Charlotte Brontë’s sentence and the two alternatives I have proposed, are:

Should you run you’d catch the train.

Were you to run, you’d catch the train.

If you were to run, you’d catch the train.

You will see that the degree of formality shown in these constructions would be quite inappropriate in the situation.

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In the Jayne Eyre sentence, "should you admit her into Lowood school, I should be glad if" can be rewritten as "{if you / were you to} accept her as a student in your school, I will be happy if..."

Whether and if are usually interchangeable, as in. e.g., "I don't know {whether / if} she's sick or well".

Should and if are usually interchangeable, as in. e.g., "{Should / If} you decide to accept our offer, please...". "Were you to decide to accept our offer, please..." is also possible, but it doesn't seem felicitous style to me.

You can check the semantic differences in a dictionary. In the examples I've given you, the differences are stylistic, not semantic. And each has different usage rules.

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  • @mcalex: No. There's no syntactic difference between, eg, "I don't know whether" and "I don't know if", just a difference in the sound of the sentence because of the difference in the number of syllables. I'd say that "if" is in a slightly lower register than the slightly more formal "whether".
    – user264
    Feb 16 '13 at 7:51
  • There is, however, a semantic difference between ‘Let us know if you’re coming to dinner’ and ‘Let us know whether you’re coming to dinner.’ Feb 16 '13 at 8:02
  • @Barrie: True, the dictionary implies that whether asks for a yes or a no answer but if asks only for a yes. There's also a semantic difference between "Fewer people are here tonight" and "Less people are here tonight". In practice, however, most native speakers of English are either ignorant or disdainful of these semantic differences & use these pairs interchangeably, so descriptivists are not allowed to mention it in public: hypocrisy is hypocrisy. [Sometimes tautologies can be useful.]
    – user264
    Feb 16 '13 at 8:27
  • 1
    There is indeed a difference between fewer and less, and it is one of which I am sure many native speakers are aware. It ‘is essentially a stylistic choice between the more formal fewer and the more spontaneous less. Fewer draws attention to itself, whereas less shifts the focus on to its more significant neighbours.' (‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’) Feb 16 '13 at 8:33
  • @Barrie: And this is exactly why I dislike the CGEL & its hypocritical authors. I don't believe that Geoffrey Pullum says or writes "Less people are here tonight".
    – user264
    Feb 16 '13 at 10:26
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In other contexts, should can carry a connotation of obligation, but that isn't at issue here. Essentially, in this context there is real no semantic difference.

There is a syntactic difference in the follow-on words in the sentence that relate to 'should', if it is changed - to illustrate:

should you admit her into Lowood school, I should be glad if the superintendent and teachers were requested to keep a strict eye on her ...

 

were you to admit her into Lowood school, I would be glad if the superintendent and teachers were requested to keep a strict eye on her ...

 

if you admit her into Lowood school, I will be glad if the superintendent and teachers are requested to keep a strict eye on her ...

Even though this suggests that the should and were versions are past tense, in the context, they are all future tense, but Ms Brontë is using a future event as though it had already happened

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