This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.
  Ask About English   
Ask about English


Shazad asks:

In the sentence, ‘work hard lest you should fail in your examination’ can 'lest' be used without the support of the word 'should'?


Listen to the audio
Download the audio (4mb)
Download the script (12k pdf)
Try the quiz

Martin Parrott answers:

Yes, it can. First, what does lest mean and when do we use it? Lest is a very rare word and quite old fashioned.

Most people in Britain know it, because we see it written very often in the same place - on war memorials, on statues, which have been put up so that we remember people who died in wars; and what's very often written on these statues is ‘lest we forget’! Now, what lest means is ‘so that we don't’ or ‘so that you don't’. It's a warning. It's introducing a danger to be avoided.

And Shazad’s example: ‘work hard lest you should fail your examination’ lest introduces the danger of things to be avoided: if you don't work hard, you will fail your examination.

Here are further examples:

We often use it after a command, ‘work hard lest you fail your exam’ and ‘dress up warmly (wear warm clothes) lest you catch cold’.

We can use it without a command, we might talk about something we did in the past, so we might say ‘I worked really hard, lest I failed my exam’.


What we do need to remember though is that it is a very, very formal and old-fashioned word and if you use it when you're talking, you're going to sound rather strange. It's a word which we see written - it's not a word that is used in conversation. Remember it, because you will see it written; but only use it if you really want to impress somebody in a very, very formal situation.

Can lest be used without the support of the word should?

Yes. And it normally is used without should. In Shazad's example, 'lest you should fail your examination', that use of should of course has a completely different meaning from the usual meaning of should. We usually think of should in terms of an obligation: something you have to do. And here, it doesn't mean that - here, the meaning introduces a conditional that suggests that this is a possibility, but not a strong possibility. It is not necessary. We usually do leave it out.

The interesting thing is, that when we do leave it out, the word that is left there is an infinitive - which means, that if we're using ‘he’, we don't say ‘he must work hard, lest he fails the examination’; we say ‘he must work hard, lest he fail the examination’. And that's a curious and interesting little bit of English.

^^ Back to top Back to Index >>