Don't waste time
May 29, 2016 6:06 PM   Subscribe

"I might come and see you off tomorrow.""I shouldn't waste your time. I won't be there." This is from the book, "The Third Man". Well, when you say, " You shouldn't waste your time.", how is it different from the former one?
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure we'll have an actual language expert along shortly with a definitive take on this using actual grammatical terms and such, but the way I read it:

"You shouldn't waste your time" = I am giving you an imperative that YOU, specifically, should not waste your time. This is a very direct approach, possibly to the point of impoliteness.

"I shouldn't waste your time" = aka "I would not waste my time, if I were you" -- similar meaning but less imperative, more empathetic. I'm not telling you what to do, but in the hypothetical situation where I am you, I would/should not waste my time. A more indirect and thus politer approach (that likely has a grammatical name that I'm afraid I don't know).
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 6:18 PM on May 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would understand "You shouldn't waste your time" as giving straight-forward advice: I am telling you how you should behave: "Don't come tomorrow."

"I shouldn't waste your time" suggests to me the message "If I were making the choice, I would choose not to come tomorrow." It avoids the very slight implication in the other construction that I have the authority to direct your behavior.
posted by layceepee at 6:20 PM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, "I shouldn't waste your time" is distinctively British English; similar constructions in American English use would rather than should. For example, the first website that I came up with when googling the use of should/would modals in English gives these examples:

We often use the conditional structure "If I were you I should..." to give advice.

If I were you, I should complain to the manager.
If I were you, I shouldn't worry about it.
I shouldn't say anything if I were you.

Note that we can omit "If I were you..." and just say:

I should complain to the manager.
I shouldn't worry about it.
I shouldn't say anything.

In each of those cases, American English uses "would".
posted by Creosote at 6:23 PM on May 29, 2016 [9 favorites]

Yeah, what Creosote said. I read a lot of English lit, and this is one of those things you definitely have to get used to. And the more you read on the etymology of the words, the more confused it seems to get.

To an American ear, "shall" is almost never used except (a) to be arch/sound a bit British or snooty (two things that are often conflated) ex. "Shall we dance?" OR (b) to convey a sense of obligation, esp. in formal usage. Contracts often say "X shall do this..." rather than "X will do this..." In modern language, there isn't much difference, and if a contract said "X will do this," no one would say "ah, they were just ASKING..."

Which gets us to the sole remaining form of the word that we use regularly - should. If an American says "I shouldn't..." - it's only used when they are recognizing a strong obligation not to do something. I shouldn't eat the cake. You shouldn't drive; you're drunk. And in the form used in the book, where it's said as advice, it has a similar meaning, except the "if I were you" is unstated/understood.

So for whatever reason when Americans are doing the "implied 'if I were you'" construction, we invariably say "would" or "wouldn't," where the British say "should" or "shouldn't." As usual, the British are arguably more correct, as when we say this we are arguably giving an imperative - you should not do this. If I were in your place I shouldn't do this.

But in another sense the American usage is correct - will/wouldn't, at least historically, was used in the sense of hoping/asking, rather than commanding. "Will you dance?" conveys a sense of asking, not telling. So if we say "I wouldn't (if I were you)," we are, in a sense, commanding, but you could also argue that it's more polite, in that we are in a sense recognizing that we're asking or conveying a wish that someone wouldn't do something, rather than an imperative that someone shouldn't do something.

If you get this figured out, next you can start working out when and how often to say please in the two cultures...

We are truly two countries divided by a common language.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:08 PM on May 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

Hmm? I disagree that this is a UK construction. While the three conditional/subjunctive examples that Creosote provided sound foreign to me, as a US English speaker the language in the OP sounds totally natural.
posted by threeants at 7:17 PM on May 29, 2016

I just looked at the text (because I recently saw & enjoyed the movie), and I think it's worth noting that the phrasing being used in this specific instance is kind of old & dated, in addition to the British vs. American distinctions mentioned above. But specific to your context here, the narrator has just suggested that the speaker should leave Vienna and stop pursuing the mystery surrounding his friend's death, and offers Rollo a ticket out of town. Rollo replies "I shouldn't waste your time, I won't be there" to the narrator, who then insists that no, he'll put him up for the night in a hotel and he can leave in the morning

When I hear a sentence like that one, it sounds polite but curt to me - like the person saying it is trying to use polite formality to brush off someone from doing something. In this case, it's a last-ditch attempt by a drunk man who has just learned that his friend died (and that the narrator considers said friend a no-good murderer) to pull himself together and leave with some basic politeness. I shouldn't waste your time is brusque, but no one would read it as directly confrontational. You shouldn't waste your time might sound rude or accusatory - it's basically a rephrased command; "don't waste your time!".

But then after saying that, Rollo loses his composure, hauls off and tries to punch the narrator in the face, so the whole attempt at politeness is basically a wash.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:23 PM on May 29, 2016

I read that differently. "I shouldn't waste your time", meaning you would be spending your time for me because I asked you to. It's taking responsibility away from you, making it my decision. I could have you see me off, but then I would be wasting your time. I shouldn't do that.
posted by ctmf at 10:45 PM on May 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

Should in this case just means the same as would. It's an archaic and quite formal UK construction.

Shall and should were used in place of will and would when talking in the first person. Some people still do this, but it sounds odd these days.

So i just means "I wouldn't waste my time if I were you".
posted by ComfySofa at 2:57 AM on May 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

it means what it literally says, which is that i, the person speaking, should not waste your time - that it would be wrong of me to waste your time. typically because i am not important enough. there is an implication that the person speaking is inferior or less important, so it is a (rather archaic) form of politeness. in contrast, "I wouldn't waste my time if I were you" places the two people on equal footing (i am imagining myself being you) so that rephrasing doesn't really capture the relative social standing implied.

without the context (i assume it's the from the conversation with the two main characters) it wouldn't have surprised me if it were a woman being coy to a man: "maybe i could see you tomorrow miss jones? oh,i shouldn't waste your time. i cannot imagine a more pleasant way to spend my time..." which puts a slightly different twist on the relative roles.

also, while it's archaic now, i imagine it was simply formal in the context of that book.
posted by andrewcooke at 10:46 AM on May 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Shall and should were used in place of will and would when talking in the first person.

Even more complicated than that:
I shall drown; no one will save me! (expresses the expectation of drowning, simple expression of future occurrence)
I will drown; no one shall save me! (expresses suicidal intent: first-person will for desire, third-person shall for "command")

Fowler uses that example, and I've found it useful when interpreting 19th to mid-20th c. English.
posted by clew at 6:47 PM on May 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

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