"Want PRO should"

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Aaron sent in a question about a usage that he first noticed at the age of nine, learning Allan Sherman's "hello mudda hello fadda" for an elementary school assembly:

Now I don't want / this should  scare ya,
But my bunk mate / has malaria.

He has also seen a similar use of irrealis should from time to time in old jokes:

Q: Mom! You haven't eaten in three weeks? Why not?
A: I didn't want my mouth to be full you should call.

Aaron observes that he hears things like this particularly among older Americans of Jewish descent", and wonders whether it's an English imitation of a Yiddish construction. There's a useful discussion in the xkcd echochamber ("You want I should" 10/28/2010),  which seems mostly to agree that this is a Yiddishism, and points to usage by Zoidberg and other Decapodians in Futurama, e.g. here:

Sure, you can vote for Shkinadel — if you want there should be a recession!

 Another contributor to the same discussion points to Dan Aykroyd's line (as Elwood Blues)  in The Blues Brothers,"You want I should wash the dead bugs off the windshield?"

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This somewhat counters the Yiddish association, since the Blues Brothers' fictional background involves "growing up in a Roman Catholic orphanage in Rock Island, Illinois and learning the blues from a janitor named Curtis". On the other hand, Aykroyd is Canadian, and there may be a more general confusion in Hollywood between Yiddishisms and non-standard English.

Anyhow, there's some relevant discussion of  Yiddish Irrealis here and here.

Update: An apparently satirical document, the Obleweiss Will, has several similar examples in the context of English influenced by the German varieties spoken by immigrants to Texas:

I, Herman Obleweiss, am writing my will mineself. That dam lawyer want he should have too much money […] First thing, I want, I don't want my brother-in-law Oscar get a dam thing I got. He is mumser. […]

I want that Hilda, my sistem, she gets de north sixtie akers where I am homint now. I bet she don't get that loafer husband of hers to broke twenty akers next plowing time. She can't have it if she let Oscar live on it. I want I should have it back if he does. […]

Momma the rest should get but I want it that Adolph should tell her what not should do so no more slick Irish vokum Cleaners Salesmen. […]

I want that my brother, Adolph, should be my execter and I want it that de judge should make Adolph plenty bond put up and watch him like hell. Adolph is good business man but only dumkopt would trust him.

Update #2 — Here's another suggestion that the "want PRO should" construction existed in informal varieties of American English before there was much influence of Eastern European immigrants. From An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, a letter dated 11/24/1862:

My Dear Father and mother and sister and brothers, one in all,

I receive you letter on Sunday the 23. I was very glad to hear from you and learn that you were all well. […] I was only 7 miles from Binghamton up the river. I didn't go to the fair. When i got done work I went on the canal to work. I agreed to run 4 trips to Utica for 20$ in money, but this load of coal was going to Canajoharie, Montgomery Co.

When I got there i saw some soldiers. They wanted I should enlist and so i did. I got 100 and 52$ in money. I enlisted for 3 years or soon as discharged. All the money i send you i want you should spend it for the family in clothing or something to eat. […]

Mother, i will tell you where my little Chest is. It is upstairs over the bedroom in the garret. Let Robert go and climb up by the stove pipe hole and he will find it on the left hand side toward the road up in the corner. I want you should keep all my things for me for i believe that God will spare my life and that I shall see you all again face to face before i die. Father, if you will send me some postage stamps I will be very thankful for them. I want to drop all old affray and I want you to do the same and when i come home we will be good friends as ever.

_____Good-by for the present.

_____________________________________Sarah Rosetta Wakeman




  1. Breffni said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 6:43 am

    I don't see a connection between "I don't want this should scare ya" (and the other examples cited) and "I didn't want my mouth to be full you should call". In the latter case, the analogue of what the title calls "want PRO should" would be "I didn't want my mouth should be full…". But as it stands, what's non-standard about it is just an elided IF ("…if you should call").

    [(myl) You're absolutely right. At least there are two different frames here, one the complement of want and the other a conditional clause (though also in the complement of want). Aaron assumes that there's a correlation in sociolinguistic distribution, but this remains to be seen.]

  2. Rachel B. said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 7:12 am

    I've seen this explained as being a direct calque on the Yiddish structure "az du zolst", lit. "That you should", see Sarah Benor's paper on Jewish English which cites this as a feature of Jewish English, and has some data on who uses it. Interestingly, she found that it had about equal use among the Jews and non-Jews in her sample.

    For the Blues Brothers- a similar construction is found in Polish, in that the subjunctive is formed via a particle with personal endings plus the past tense form of the verb (which could be theoretically calqued as "that X should" in some cases), so that could be a possible authentic Chicago source? But I agree that it's more likely this is an example of the trope Yiddish as a Second Language.

  3. Michael Bench-Capon said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 7:34 am

    Dan Aykroyd's name has two Ys in it, odd as that looks.

    [(myl) Fixed now.]

  4. Robert Coren said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 9:02 am

    I too would have thought of this as a Yiddishism, but in Clouds of Witness, Dorothy Sayers has a decidedly non-Jewish Yorkshireman exclaim, "Howd toong!…Doost want Ah should break ivry bwoan i' thi body?"

  5. Eric S said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 9:27 am

    I'm reminded of a line I heard on the Sopranos. One character complains of gastric issues, to which the other responds:

    "You want I should go to Rite Aid and get you some metamucil?"

    The writer seems to think this is normal for a New Jersey Italian, though this may just add more evidence to your "Hollywood is confused" point than anything else.

  6. Brett said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    In The Far Side, one of "the squirrels of Central Park" says, "Whad is dis? I gives you two nuts yestahday and you sez you gonna pay me back today! You want I should break your incisors or what?" Gary Larson apparently considered the construction to be a distinctive feature of New York (gangster) English.

    We also use this kind of "should" in my family occasionally, and I think of it as a jocular Yiddishism.

  7. AMM said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 10:34 am

    FWIW, I recall from my Latin class that present subjunctives were frequently translated with "should". This was the middle of Virginia in the 1960's, so I doubt there was much Yiddish influence.

    As Breffni points out, the second example is a conditional clause, of which there are (according to my Latin class) three kinds: the plain conditional (using indicative), the contrary-to-fact conditional (using past/pluperfect subjunctive), and an on-the-fence conditional, using the present (or perfect) subjunctive. Examples: "If I am …." vs. "If I were …" vs. "If I should [happen to] be …"

    The first example is one where in modern English we usually use an infinitive:
    "I don't want this to scare you". But if you insist on making it a separate clause, I would feel compelled to put in a should:

    *"I don't want that this scare(s) you"

    "I don't want that this should scare you".

    For some verbs, the English present subjunctive (w/o "should") works:

    "I demand that he come here"

    but for reasons I can't explain, it doesn't work with "want." FWIW, indicative doesn't work for me:

    *"I demand that he comes here."

    Also FWIW: I speak German, where the subordinate clause form is typical for indirect command, but they use the indicative:

    "Mein Chef verlangt, dass er die Arbeit heute fertig macht." (not "mache")

    "Ich moechte, dass jemand heute das Klo repariert."

    I think French uses a subjunctive, but I'm not that fluent in French. (I've noticed that in some respects, English grammar is closer to French than Germanic.)

  8. Theophylact said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 11:15 am

    But "mumser" is Yiddish, from Hebrew mamzer ממזר = bastard.

    [(myl) Indeed. But this word made its way into Medieval French, so maybe also into 19th-century German? Then again, maybe the wit behind the Obleweiss Will was some anonymous Borscht Belt comedian at loose ends in Dallas.]

  9. mollymooly said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 11:23 am

    It is remarkably hard for me to avoid misreading "Yiddish Irrealis" as "Yiddish Israelis".

  10. Jim said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 11:37 am

    There are at least tow sources for this. subjunctive use of 'should" is pretty common in RP, so it's no surprise that that Yourkshireman's variety might have picked it up. It also doesn't meana that the use in a US context can't come from Yiddish or even some other one of the many varieties of German that came to America.

    "You want I should go to Rite Aid and get you some metamucil?"
    The writer seems to think this is normal for a New Jersey Italian,"

    If you look at the settlement histories of the groups that immigrated around the turn of the 20th century, you find they often settled in the same neighborhoods, and the "English" that kids in those neighborhoods was a soup of substrata. It would suprise me very much if there were no Italianisms in Jewish American varieties of English.

  11. peggysioux said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

    I am from Texas and was visiting someone in CA who made me aware that I say things like "we might could go to a movie" or "we might should go to the grocery store." I was totally unaware that I had picked that up from someone.

    [(myl) Double modals have a rather different sociolinguistic distribution — see e.g. "He must can parse", 6/13/2009; "Do double modals really exist?", 11/20/2007; "Might would have", 11/20/2007; also this 11/20/2007 post on Mr. Verb's blog, and M. Mishoe and M. Montgomery, "The Pragmatics of Multiple Modal Variation in North and South Carolina", American Speech 1994.]

  12. Rolig said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

    I always wondered if this irrealis "should" was related to the Russian construction in the same context: for example:

    Я не хочу, чтобы ты испугался от этого. / Ya ne khochu, chtoby ty ispugalsya ot ètogo.

    for which a clunky word-for-word translation might be: "I don't want that you should be frightened by this."

    Similar constructions are found in other Slavic languages, e.g. Slovene: Nočem, da bi te to prestrašilo. — literally, "I don't want that this should scare you."

  13. John Walden said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

    Jim mentions this and certainly in BrE "should" does seem to be something of a go-to modal auxiliary. In fact I would say it has even less of a core meaning than do its also fickle sidekicks.

    It's to be found in conditionals:

    "If you should find yourself in London,….."

    and in conditionals without "if":

    "Should you require further assistance, ……"

    and we shove it in when the subjunctive might also be in order:

    "We insist that all staff should be correctly dressed"

    None of these has much to do with "giving advice".

    So for it to be used instead of similar but not identical verbs from other languages is perhaps unsurprising.

    [(myl) These are all perfectly standard (if in some cases a bit stuffy) in American English as well. It's things like "NP1 want (that) NP2 should VP" that have a more restricted distribution.]

  14. quixote said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 3:03 pm

    It's funny, to me at least, that this kind of "should" doesn't sound odd to me. I know it's not ordinary English, and yet it sounds okay. My first language was Russian. I think Rolig may be on to something.

    Re the first comment: both of those "shoulds" are used to mean something that hasn't (yet) happened. Maybe that's the relationship?

    [(myl) They're both "irrealis", certainly. But there's more than one way to be unreal.]

  15. D.O. said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

    @Rolig. I don't see a modal verb in your Russian example. испугался is past tense reflexive of испугать, which, in turn, is the perfect form of пугать. Roughly speaking испугался = became frightened. What am I missing?

    By the way, how do courts deal with contracts or wills written in something other than Standard English?

  16. Rolig said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

    @D.O. You're missing the бы particle in the conjunction чтобы, which creates the subjunctive ("would" or "should") and requires the л-participle (otherwise used for the past tense). Hence, чтобы ты испугался = "so that you would be frightened". In the sentence, Я не хочу, чтобы ты испугался, the meaning is: "I don't want you to be frightened" or, dialectically, "I don't want that you should be frightened."

  17. David Morris said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

    A few years ago a student asked me about the construction "Should you have any questions, please ask" and I was momentarily stumped. Although I understand it perfectly, it's not a construction I (should) use myself. There is a continuum of "level" between: "If you have any questions …", "If you should have any questions …" and "Should you have any questions …".

    Correspondingly, the "you should call" construction in the telephone joke would be more natural (to me) as "when you called" (or maybe "if you called"), "if you should call" or "should you call" (but that might could be too high a level for this conversation). (I don't usually use double modals, but I couldn't resist.) "you should call" is just not natural (dare I say "not correct"?) for me.

  18. D.O. said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 7:58 pm

    @Rolig. But Russian чтобы does not function as a modal verb. Where's the connection to should? I am not trying to be hard, just want to understand your point. In your example Russian uses modified particle, not a modal verb, to indicate irrealis. Even if you constructed an example with free floating бы, it might at best indicate that native Russian speaker could try to use was for the same purpose. Or do you think that a Russian speaker may learn English usage like "Should you find any problem, call us at ###" and tries to use it in a dependent clause? But there is no connection to чтобы either. Russian translation would be something like "Если будут какие-то затруднения, звоните по номеру ###"

  19. Joe Fineman said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 8:05 pm

    I parse "Should you have any questions" as suppression of "if" with inversion
    (= "If you should have any questions"). Cf. "Had I but known" = "If I had but known", etc.

  20. Rolig said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

    @D.O. The modality of the Russian example is expressed through the бы particle (it doesn't matter whether it's attached to the conjunction что or free-floating). In combination with the бы particle, the -l form of the verb (including, of course, those masculine forms that have lost the historic -l ending: принёс, умер, смог, etc.) does not express the past tense; it does not express any tense.

    что ты испугался = that you were frightened (past tense)
    чтобы ты испугался = that you would be frightened (subjunctive mood; the tense is not indicated by the form):

    Он не хотел, чтобы ты испугался, и поэтому вчера ничего не сказал. = He didn't want you to be frightened and so didn't say anything yesterday. [the potential fright was in the past]
    Он не хочет, чтобы ты испугался от того, что говорят. = He doesn't want you to be frightened by what people are saying. [the potential fright is in the present]
    Он не хочет, чтобы ты испугался, когда ее увидишь завтра. = He doesn't want you to be frightened when you see her tomorrow. [the potential fright is in the future]

    In all these examples, I would expect that a Russian speaker learning English might find it natural to use a subjunctive clause, e.g.: "that you would [or should] be frightened". The presence of the бы particle would make the use of the indicative past ("were frightened") much less likely.

    The Slavic languages often use the subjunctive construction (чтобы clauses) with verbs expressing desire. I know almost nothing about Yiddish, but I was wondering if this could have influenced the development of the irrealis "should" that is associated with Jewish or other dialects in immigrant communities originally coming from Eastern Europe.

  21. Bruce H. said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 10:59 pm

    Another vote for Yiddish. I encountered it in the story about the mohel who has a clock in the front window of his shop. A shopper comes in to have her watch repaired. The mohel explains that he neither repairs nor sells watches. The disappointed customer asks what he does. He explains. She asks, "Well then why do you have a clock in the window?" He replies, "C'mon, Lady. What do you want I should put in the window?"

  22. Jeffry House said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 8:01 am

    For those of us without Yiddish-speaking relatives, the go-to source for Yiddishisms in English is "The Education of Hyman Kaplan" by Leo Rosten. You want I should provide a link?

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

    Here's a "you want I should" dated 1742, though published in 1834: "If you want I should explain anything here written, you may let me know by another line." From a letter by the Rev. Ralph Erskine of Dunfermline, in Scotland.

    One from 1795 in Essex: "But in this I will say no more, since you do not want I should reason, but merely state facts." From General View of the Agriculture in the County of Essex.

  24. ajay said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 4:57 am

    "In the latter case, the analogue of what the title calls "want PRO should" would be "I didn't want my mouth should be full…". But as it stands, what's non-standard about it is just an elided IF ("…if you should call")."

    Or an inversion of the order – "I didn't want my mouth to be full should you call."

  25. Ben said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 7:41 am

    It may predate Yiddish influence in English, but its widespread use in American English is clearly due to Yiddish; it is well known that this is an exact calque of the Yiddish veln PRO zoln construction, as several commenters above have alluded to. What was once a very occasional turn of phrase became a common one as a calque from Yiddish in the mouths of eastern European immigrants and their descendants. The question that remains, then, is why it has a certain "wise guy" connotation, which explains its use in The Blues Brothers. I think this is because of Damon Runyon, whose idiosyncratic language owed much to Yiddish and strongly shaped perceptions of urban ethnic speech.

  26. Ben said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 11:19 am

    Another Runyonesque wise-guy phrase that is clearly a calque from Yiddish: "Make with the." There are also a few lexical items, such as the old-fashioned "shamus," and the still in use "vig," from Yiddish "vigorish."

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