I know that nowadays in American informal English “should” almost always means “ought to”, as in “I should treat my family well”, but that it can also mean “if” or “in the event that”, as in “Should you come, I will treat you well”.

Question: are there constructions in which “should” is semantically ambiguous between these two meanings?

Thank you!

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    Offhand I'd say there's zero chance of there being an "utterance" where it's ambiguous whether should means if or ought to, because they're completely different "parts of speech". But even if you could contrive some written context where two different parsings seemed possible, I'm sure the text wouldn't still be ambiguous in its spoken form. Ambiguity that only applies to written forms isn't really ambiguity anyway - it's just "poor quality writing style" (if the ambiguity is "real"). Mar 15, 2023 at 17:04
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    I’m voting to close this question because we only welcome "questions based on actual problems that you face." This one looks more like an "intellectual game". Mar 15, 2023 at 17:08
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    I don't think it's zero chance; if you include subordinate clauses, ellipses, and other complexities, there's almost always some construction that would be ambiguous, but if you write a straightforward "you should do X" then that's going to be unambiguous. (Note that it's not just shall: must and most other modals have multiple meanings - "You must do this" vs "You must have done this", while "can" can mean permission or possibility - and it's not a big problem.)
    – Stuart F
    Mar 15, 2023 at 17:09
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    Don't use should for if in technical writing. Use if or in the event of. In the event of fire, press the button. If a fire breaks out, press the button. [People in the states use nowadays all the time. Be aware that with such a large population, comparisons with "like BrE speakers" is well nigh impossible.
    – Lambie
    Mar 15, 2023 at 17:42
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    ...also note this usage chart showing that If that should happen is about equally common in BrE and AmE (it's simply not true that AmE is different to BrE in this respect). Mar 15, 2023 at 17:45

1 Answer 1


It's conceivable, but very unlikely, because it would require a context in which a single clause could stand either as a question (which normally stands alone), or as the protasis of a conditional (which normally doesn't).

An isolated protasis can occur in conversation - "Can he come and see you?" "If he needs to." But few people would say "Should he need to" in that sense, because inverted conditional like that are now rather formal.

And even if somebody did say "Should he need to" in that context, the intonation will be different from if they were asking "Should he need to?"

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    I can't help wondering if it's possible for HRT (rising intonation) in "Valley-speak / Aussie English" to create ambiguity with Can he come and see you? Should he need to? I mean can it be ambiguous whether that's ...in the event that he needs to see you, or just the speaker wondering whether "he" could or should have any need to see the addressee (regardless of whether he's permitted to do so). Mar 15, 2023 at 18:33
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    Another possibility: "Should you finish work early, might we buy something for lunch, may we see a movie later, and could they bring us some coffee?" It could be read either as four questions or as a protasis followed by three questions. I'm sure that better examples could be contrived, but in any case it would certainly be rare. Mar 15, 2023 at 18:34
  • @ColinFine In your example the differentiation wouldn’t just be made in speech, but also in writing, by the question mark.
    – user354948
    Mar 15, 2023 at 20:06
  • @FumbleFingers, good example, I can hear it in my mind!
    – user354948
    Mar 15, 2023 at 20:07
  • @MarcInManhattan That took some invention, haha!
    – user354948
    Mar 15, 2023 at 20:08

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