The Crutch of Should

I don't think I'm going to let my students use should anymore. The use of should in a persuasive or argumentative essay thesis may be impeding their reasoning skills.

Consider that should implies an evaluative criteria of some sort when it's used for argument. If we argue that someone "should" do something (or not do something), then we are essentially enforcing our value system on the intended reader, who, by virtue of the purpose for writing, disagrees with us. 

Another possibility is that we're using should as a means of garnering support from those who already agree with us,  a sort of solidarity-meter, which then defeats the purpose of having to convince anyone or argue, anyway.

But its use may also bypass some aspects of critical thinking. For example, in persuasive essays, students who use should statements often fail to expand on their reasoning. Or, there may be a disconnect between their reasoning and the should thinking.

It also tends to (not always) cause students lean towards personal conviction as their reasoning--a sort of knee jerk approval or disapproval. Rather, if we can get them to fully understand WHY they have that sense of approval/disapproval, then we may be better able to help them move forward in their ability to think critically. 

Should also implies a sense of rightness or wrongness, which can certainly be subjective. And if someone is jumping on the "it's right or wrong" train, they will most likely fail to effectively persuade someone who is on the opposite end of the controversy.

Actually, it was the recent hoopla with the Coca-Cola commercial is what got me thinking about "should." The controversy, by the way, raises the possibility for an excellent topic for a persuasive essay. My English-teacher spidey-sense was tingling with this prompt:

          You are the public awareness director for Coca Cola. Convince the company to use or          not to use this commercial as their headline advertisement for the Superbowl.

The controversy raged quite visually on the social media. In a discussion I had on Facebook on this topic, someone argued:

          "Coke shouldn't have put that commercial on, given the venue and what's happening in 
           America, today."

When I asked whether the message/intent of the commercial was clearly understood, the person claimed to understand the message, but still felt the company was wrong to present it.  

When pressed to examine the reasoning behind the should statement, though, this person listed what was considered to be "bad things" happening (the economy, the immigration issue, etc.), the Superbowl is an American tradition, Americans are Christians, and English is our language.

I didn't find these points convincing because there was little connection in reasoning.

This person's goal was to convince me (persuade me) that Coke was "wrong" in their choice. Since I found the commercial quite compelling and positive, this person would have to resort to stronger reasoning to get me to see the "wrongness" of the company's choice.

The discussion concluded when, after the person was asked to clarify, the conversation politely came to a halt. My guess is that he/she was unable to reason further because of the should. It was a glaring hurdle in the reasoning process.

I'm wondering, though, what would have happened if the individual had removed should from the thinking altogether. Rather, what might have happened with his/her reasoning skills if the person thought in terms of effectiveness, based on the author (Coke) and the intended audience (all American citizens)?

What is it about the state of the country's economy that suggests a commercial with an intended positive message about the diverse cultures of America is not an effective marketing choice for Coca-Cola?
Here, the individual would be forced to make the connection without the crutch of "should."

Another negative aspect of the use of should with a persuasive essay is that it compels some readers (those with lower critical thinking skills) to NOT use critical thinking and reason to arrive at a logical conclusion. Consider these two points:

          Smoking causes wrinkles, so you should not smoke.

          Research suggests that smokers have three times the number of wrinkles that non-         
          smokers do.

The lower-level thinker would jump at the "should" statement without much ado. Wrinkles? Eep!
However, the second point requires that the reader arrive at the conclusion that he or she should not smoke. While the "should" statement might be convincing, reasoning through and arriving at the conclusion is more likely to induce a permanent or authentic response in favor of the argument.

What do you think? To should or not to should?


  1. Mindy,
    This is a nice piece. I have never thought about "should" in this manner. To use your last example, it makes sense to me, that a more effective argument would be to include data (I am a science teacher.) in order to draw conclusions. The next logical statement would be "If you wish to minimize your chances of getting wrinkles then you should not smoke." Oops, I used should, but at least here it has data to support the statement. Maybe it would be better to write "...then do not smoke." Either way, good data should elicit accurate conclusions. By the way, the commercial gave me chills. Thanks for the post. Cheers, Bob.

  2. Thanks, Bob! I never thought about it, either, until that argument on Facebook. And then, I saw it in student essays (I review college student writing in an online writing lab) over and over. These were also the essays that seemed to be weaker, overall. : >

  3. Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Mindy.