Just here for the exercises? Click here.

What’s the difference between should and shall?

The modal verbs shall and should are often confused, but have different meanings. Shall is used mostly in questions, while should has various uses. Learn the difference between should and shall with Lingolia’s quick and easy examples, then test your knowledge in the exercises.


In modern British English*, the use of shall is mostly limited to first person singular and plural questions. We use it to make suggestions and offers.

Shall we go for a drink? (suggestion)
Shall I pick you up later? (offer)

Shall can also be used to express rules and obligations, but this function only appears in formal written English, such as contracts and legal documents. Using shall in a normal sentence in spoken English sounds old fashioned.

Employees shall not work longer than ten hours a day.

*shall is rarely used in modern American English. Speakers of American English form such questions with should.


Technically, should is the past tense of shall, however given that shall has fallen out of fashion, should is used much more frequently in modern English. We use should in the following situations:

  • to talk about an opinion or to give advice
    You should stop smoking, it’s bad for your health.
    We should leave soon if we want to make it to the airport on time.
  • to ask for someone’s opinion or advice
    Should I dye my hair blonde?
  • to express certainty or an expectation
    The bus should be here any minute.
  • together with the present perfect tense to express retrospective advice
    I should have baked the cake for longer, it’s raw in the middle.


Sometimes there is a clear difference between should and shall:

Employees shall take a break every six hours! (command)
Employees should take a break every six hours. (advice)

However, in questions should and shall have similar meanings:

Shall we go to the cinema?
making a suggestion
Should we go to the cinema?
depending on the context, the speaker could be making a suggestion, or they could be asking whether it is advisable to go to the cinema

Be supposed to

Another phrase that is often confused with should is be supposed to.

When it refers to things that are (not) allowed or (not) advisable, supposed to has a similar meaning to should.

You’re not supposed to take your own food into the cinema. (= you shouldn’t do this)
You’re supposed to buy popcorn and drinks at the cinema. (= you should do this)

However, be supposed to is also used to report information heard from a third party.

That book is supposed to be really good.
I haven’t read it myself, but I heard this from others.

be supposed to is also used to talk about something planned or expected that is different to reality.

He was supposed to work with the team, but he did everything by himself.


The exhibition should show the whole collection.
= it would be better if it showed the whole collection
Apparently, the exhibition is supposed to show the whole collection.
= I’ve heard this from others
The exhibition was supposed to show the whole collection.
= this was the original plan, but for some reason this is not the reality

Lean more about should and shall and other modal verbs.