“Shall” vs. “Should”: What’s The Difference?

When should you use the word should and the word shall? Continue reading and you shall learn the answer!

In this article, we will explore the differences between should and shall, explain when and how we typically use these words, and provide examples of how we typically use them in sentences.

Quick summary

Shall is an auxiliary verb (helping verb) that has several different meanings. It can be used to express what one plans to, intends to, or expects to do, as well communicate obligation (in the case of laws and directives). Shall is often used interchangeably with the word will (though much less commonly) to form the future tense. Should is the past tense of shall, but it is also used to express duty or obligation.

When to use shall or should 

The word shall is an auxiliary verb, also known as a helping verb. It is commonly used together with other verbs to express intention, as in what one plans to, intends to, or expects to do, as well communicate obligation (in the case of laws and directives). It can also be used to ask questions. For example:

  • I shall go with Gary to the store tomorrow.
  • We shall return this wallet because it is the right thing to do.
  • All official meetings shall be held in the town hall.
  • Shall we dance?

Should is the past tense form of shall. Should is the form of shall that is used in the subjunctive mood to express hypothetical statements. For example:

  • If the king should die unexpectedly, his brother becomes regent.

However, this usage of should is not common in modern American English (and is more common in British English). Instead, should is most often used to state an obligation or duty someone has, as in You should always have a spare roll of toilet paper or I really should clean the garage, but I can never find the time.

Both shall and should are used in questions. Both words are often used interchangeably, but the word should often implies that the asker is more conflicted or less confident in what the correct answer is than if they used the word shall. For example:

  • Shall I open this door? (The asker is pretty confident that opening the door is the correct thing to do.)
  • Should I open this door? (The asker is hesitant about opening the door or doesn’t know if opening the door is a good idea or not.)

Like other auxiliary verbs, shall and should are sometimes used alone. In these cases, the main verb is understood but has been omitted. For example:

  • She asked me if I will go to the party tonight and I said that I shall (go).
  • I don’t wash my car as often as I should (wash it).

In legal contexts, the word shall has been used to express a legal obligation. However, the word shall is now considered too imprecise for legal documents due to its widespread ambiguous and inconsistent use by lawyers. In the Plain Writing Act of 2010, the government recommends the use of the word must in place of shall to refer to a legal obligation.

Verbs similar to shall and should

Two other auxiliary verbs follow a similar pattern to shall and should. The word would is used as the past tense of will and the word could is used as the past tense of can.

Would you like to learn about another pair? Then review this guide on will vs. would.

Examples of shall and should used in a sentence

We should test what we have learned by looking at example sentences that show how we typically use shall and should.

  • We shall decorate the ballroom tonight.
  • You really should avoid going near that hornet’s nest.
  • If it should rain tomorrow, the guests can eat inside.
  • Shall we tell him which box we think he should open?
  • I think we should ask somebody where the parade shall be held.

Take The Quiz

Feeling confident about how much you’ve learned about these verbs already? If so, we think you shall perform admirably on our quiz on shall vs. should. You may surprise yourself with what you’ve learned!

Delve into more discussions by reviewing our guide on "shine" vs. "shone."

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