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Shall and Will

Commonly Confused Words

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Shall and Will

In contemporary American English, the auxiliary verb shall is rarely used. In British English, shall and will are often used interchangeably with no difference of meaning in most circumstances. Internationally, will is now the standard choice for expressing future plans and expectations. However, in first-person questions shall is often used to express politeness, and in legal statements, shall is used with a third-person subject for stating requirements.

According to R.L. Trask (see below), traditional rules regarding shall and will are "little more than a fantastic invention."

The editors of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage conclude that such rules "do not appear to have described real usage of these words very precisely at any time, although there is no question that they do describe the usage of some people some of the time and that they are more applicable in England than elsewhere."

Bryan A. Garner observes that "there's simply no reason to hold on to shall. The word is peripheral in American English" (Garner's Modern American Usage).

Please see the usage notes below.

Examples:

  • "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time." (Barack Obama)

  • "The British Constitution has always been puzzling and always will be." (Queen Elizabeth II)

  • I will call you later.

  • "Here is my principle: Taxes shall be levied according to ability to pay. That is the only American principle." (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

  • "Down the stairs? Well, don't stop when you get to the basement. Keep straight on. Give my regards to the earth's core! And if you give us any more trouble, I shall visit you in the small hours and put a bat up your nightdress." (Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers)

  • Shall we dance?

Usage Notes:

  • "There is a traditional textbook ruling that runs as follows. For simple futurity, you use shall after I or we but will after everything else, while, to express determination or command, you use will after I or we but shall after everything else. By these rules, the required forms are We shall finish tonight (simple statement) versus We will finish tonight (expressing determination), but They will finish tonight (simple statement) versus They shall finish tonight (an order).

    "As grammarians never tire of pointing out, these bizarre rules do not accurately describe the real usage of careful speakers at any time or in any place in the history of English, and they are little more than a fantastic invention. If you are one of the handful of speakers for whom these rules now seem completely natural, then by all means go ahead and follow them. But, if you are not, just forget about them, and use your natural forms.

    "However, in Britain, the very formal written English used in drafting laws and regulations requires the use of shall with a third-person subject for stating requirements. Example: An average of 40 percent shall be deemed a pass at Honours level. Britons engaged in doing such writing must fall into line here.

    "Do not try to use shall if the word does not feel entirely natural, and especially don't try to use it merely in the hope of sounding more elegant. Doing so will probably produce something that is acceptable to no one."
    (R.L. Trask, Say What You Mean! A Troubleshooter's Guide to English Style & Usage, David R. Godine, 2005)


  • "[T]he distinction between intention and futurity can be hazy, and grammarians of C17 and C18 devised an odd compromise whereby both shall and will could express one or the other, depending on the grammatical person involved. . . . Research by Fries (1925) into the language of English drama from C17 on showed that this division of labor was artificial even in its own time. These paradigms were however enshrined in textbooks of later centuries and still taught a few decades ago. Their neglect is one of the better consequences of abandoning the teaching of grammar in schools."
    (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, Cambridge University Press, 2004)


  • "British people use I shall/I will and we shall/we will with no difference of meaning in most situations. However, shall is becoming very much less common than will. Shall is not normally used in American English. . . .

    "Shall and will are not only used for giving information about the future. They are also common in offers, promises, orders and similar kinds of 'interpersonal' language use. In these cases, will (or 'll) generally expresses willingness, wishes or strong intentions (this is connected with an older use of will to mean 'wish' or 'want'). Shall expresses obligation (like a more direct form of should)."
    (Michael Swan, Practical English Usage, Oxford University Press, 1995)


  • "In colloquial and indeed all spoken English . . . will is fast displacing shall in all cases in which shall was formerly used and in which we are recommended to use it. . . . It survives chiefly in first person questions, where it usefully distinguishes 'Shall I open the window?' (as an offer or proposal) from 'Will I need a towel?' (= will it be necessary). It is useful that the construction 'll stands for both shall and will."
    (Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage, edited by Janet Whitcut, W.W. Norton, 1995)


  • "Use shall to express determination: We shall overcome. You and he shall stay.

    "Either shall or will may be used in first-person constructions that do not emphasize determination: We shall hold a meeting. We will hold a meeting.

    "For second- and third-person constructions, use will unless determination is stressed: You will like it. She will not be pleased."
    (The Associated Press 2009 Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, Basic Books, 2009)

Practice:
(a) Let's go into the church, _____ we?

(b) If you build it, he _____ come.

(c) Merdine _____ bring the salad.

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

Related Video
ESL: Questions in English
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