Difference between Shall and Should

Updated on June 27, 2017

Let us take a look at the two sentences below:

  • “Shall we proceed?”
  • “Should we proceed?

Aside from the obvious fact that the first sentence used “shall” and the second used “should,” can you point a finger on why they are different? If not, you are in the right place. This article will discuss the difference between “shall” and “should.”

Descriptions

Shall

The word shall is a modal verb that is used:

  1. To indicate a law, rule, obligation, or mandatory requirement; for example: The local ordinance says that every restaurant shall submit a health and safety report to the Department of Health office every 5th of the month.
  2. In formal or legal documents; for example: The children of Mr. Ralph Simmons, the deceased, shall have the right to request a copy of the summary of assets of their parents.
  3. To emphasize a strong assertion or determination that a future event or action will certainly occur; for example: The chauffeur shall be here at 6 o’clock in the morning to pick you up.
  4. To express offers; for example: Shall I get you a cup of tea?
  5. To express suggestions; for example: Shall we take a break and resume the session in 15 minutes?
  6. To ask for advice when you are unsure of what to do; for example: We missed the last bus to the city. What shall we do?

should

On the other hand, the word should is the past tense of “shall.” It is used:

  1. To express your point of view, suggestion, or advice; for example: You should seek professional advice from a lawyer.
  2. To ask for a person’s idea or opinion, suggestion, or advice; for example: What do you think Tammy should do, then?
  3. To describe an event or action that we wish had happened but did not; for example: You should have asked him! He’s very approachable.
  4. To express how striking or notable an object or action was; for example: You should’ve heard Miranda sing!
  5. To express that an action or event is highly probable or expected because you have the reason to believe so; for example: My mom should be home by 5 o’clock. Her shift ends at 4:30 PM and her office is right around the corner.
  6. To ask “why” or “how”; for example: How should I know where Jamie put the folder?
  7. To describe an obligation or correctness, usually when you are being critical of a person’s actions; for example: Well, it’s not the owner’s fault. You should have read the sign!
  8. In conditional statements that talk about actions or events that might occur; for example: Should you need assistance on how to read the pattern, do not hesitate to send me a message.
  9. To express an idea which you are unsure of; for example: I should think she’s right.
  10. To politely indicate an offer, request, or that you are accepting something; I should like to accept the invitation to the gala.
  11. To describe something that is correct or sensible; for example: Teachers should guide their students morally.

Shall vs Should

What, then, is the difference between “shall” and “should”?

The word “shall” is more commonly used in formal or legal writing. It introduces a law, rule, or an obligation. It is also used to emphasize a strong determination that a future event will occur. Moreover, “shall” is used to express offers and suggestions in a polite manner and to ask for advice especially when you do not know what to do.

Conversely, “should” is used to express and ask for an opinion or suggestion. It is also used to politely indicate that you are accepting an offer or making a request, or to express an idea that you are unsure of. Additionally, “should” is used to describe how impressive an object or event is and to express something you wished you happened but didn’t. If you are talking about something that is expected because you have enough reason to do so, or if you want to talk about something you feel is the correct thing to do, “should” is the right word to use. Also, “should” is used in conditional statements that talk about something that might occur, in “that” phrases, and in “why” or “how” statements.

Comparison Chart

ShallShould
Used to indicate a law, rule, obligation, or a mandatory requirement; in formal or legal documents; to emphasize a strong assertion or determination that a future event or action will occur; to express offers or suggestions; to ask for advice when you are unsure of what to doUsed to express your point of view or advice; to ask for a person’s idea or opinion or advice; to describe an event or action you wish had happened but did not; to express how striking or notable an object or action was; to express that an action or event is probable or expected; to ask “why” or “how”; to describe an obligation or correctness, usually when you are being critical of a person’s actions; in conditional statements that talk about action or events that might occur; to express an idea which you are unsure of; to politely indicate an offer, request, or that you are accepting something; to describe something that is correct or sensible
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