Saturday, April 09, 2011

Shall & Will

Jennifer asked about the distinction between shall and will. In my grammar school days, we were taught the traditional distinction, but in contemporary America it is seldom honored. For all I know, it’s no longer taught.

The traditional rule is this:

(1) To signal simple futurity, use shall in the first person (I/we) and will in the second and third person (you/he/she/it/they).

  • I shall read this when I have time.
  • You will want to read this.
  • She will want to read this

(2) To signal determination or obligation, use will in the first person and shall in the second and third person.

  • I will get the job done no matter what it takes.
  • You shall get the job done or be fired.
  • He shall get the job done or be fired.

Even during its heyday (the 18th century), it was not uniformly applied. It was the product of our old friends, the hypercorrectionists. They probably used the model of Old English, where willan meant “to be about to,” and sculan meant “to be obliged to.” But Old English gave way to Middle English around the 12th century.

Today, you might encounter it in polite requests (“shall we go?”) or in legal documents (“the tenant shall be responsible for electrical and telephone bills”). Otherwise, shall is an endangered species.

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