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February 26, 2012  |  If you use "should," it should work  |  26246 hit(s)

A culture-specific image! In German, people hope for good luck by 'pressing their thumbs.'In technical writing, you might see the word should used in a couple of senses.

Sense 1

After making these changes, you should save the file.

This sense conveys (to quote our style guide) "an action that is recommended, but optional." It's fine, with the qualification that in this sense, should is strictly a recommendation, not a requirement. (If the action is required, use must: To finish the operation, you must save the contents to a file.)

There are variants on this. For examples, error messages are often written this way, as shown here in a couple of examples from our documentation:

Assemblies should declare minimum security.
Enums should have zero value.

Sense 2

Click New. The New File dialog box should be displayed.

This sense conveys the, um, desired outcome of an action. This usage is relatively common, I've found. But in general, I edit away should when it's used in this sense. When you're writing procedures, you don't want to sound like you're hesitant about what's supposed to be happening. Or to put it a different way, you're conveying a slight sense of doubt about whether the instruction you just gave actually works. Probably it will work. We hope this works. It ought to work.

Contrast these:

Click New. The New File dialog box should be displayed.
Click New. The New File dialog box is displayed.

Run the page again. Your changes should appear.
Run the page again. Your changes appear.

I can't see any reason why the second variation in each case isn't the better approach.

There's some wiggle room here. I would not say that should should never be used in this type of context. Perhaps it's ok in an instruction like this:

Install the newest versions of the assemblies. This should resolve the problem. If it doesn't, proceed to the next recommendation.

In this sense (invented), you really do want to convey that it's the desired and/or probable outcome, but nonetheless might still not occur. (You could also write around it by saying If this doesn't work, proceed ...)

So: if you're writing instructions and if action A should result (haha) in result B, then be bold: skip should and just press onward without the modal verb. Your readers will (or should) appreciate your confidence.