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Cinderella

What’s the difference between ‘will’ and ‘shall’?

Cinderella, you shall go to the ball!

The story of Cinderella is decidedly appealing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a fairy godmother? She’d magic you away from your humdrum existence, ensure that you’re the belle of the ball, and make all your wishes come true. Even better (for the purposes of this blog post), she’s clearly on the ball (tee-hee!) when it comes to using shall and will ultra-correctly.

These two verbs are the subject of my latest endeavour to shed some light on the use of modal verbs in English. As with can versus could and may as opposed to might, there are certain ‘rules’ in standard British English grammar regarding the distinction between will and shall which you should be aware of, even if the current consensus is that these two verbs are generally interchangeable in most, but not all, situations. The situation is slightly different in American English, too. The following is an exploration of the main uses of will and shall.

I shall be in Japan, but you will be in New York

The verb will is used in a number of ways, but we chiefly use it (followed by the infinitive of another verb) to talk about the future:

1.  Hopefully, we will have a very good election.
2.  Life in the village will never be the same again.
3.  When will you go to New York?
4.  I will be in Japan this time next year.

The negative form is will not, which is often shortened to won’t:

5.  I won’t be away for long.
6.  These phones will not be available till next year.
7.   We will not understand the situation until the facts have been collected.

The die-hard grammatical sticklers amongst you might have already started jumping up and down after reading the above examples. Why? Well, in traditional British grammar, the rule is that will should only be used with second and third person pronouns (you; he, she, it, they). With first person pronouns (I and we), the ‘correct’ verb to talk about the future is shall. This means that strictly speaking, examples 1, 4, 5, and 7 are ungrammatical, and should instead read:

Hopefully, we shall have a very good election.
I shall be in Japan this time next year.
I shan’t be away for long.
We shall not understand the situation until the facts have been collected.

In practice, however, and especially when speaking, people are more likely to shorten will and shall when these verbs are used with pronouns (we’ll, they’ll, etc) and therefore there’s no need to worry too much about the distinction when referring to the future, unless you’re writing in a very formal situation or having to conform to an organization’s style guide.

Equally, not all varieties of British English use ‘shall’ in these senses. Some varieties of English, including Scottish and Irish English, tend to use ‘will’ instead of ‘shall’ when talking about the future, no matter if it’s with the first, second, or third person pronoun.

Determination or duty: you shall go to the ball!

Returning to our fairy godmother, her statement to Cinderella neatly illustrates the other main use of shall and will: to express a strong feeling that something must definitely happen, or that someone must do something as a duty. In a complete turnaround, traditional grammar dictates that I and we should be accompanied by will in such situations, whereas shall is used with you, he, she, it, and they:

I will ensure that every single cent is spent on the project for which it was intended.
We won’t put up with this situation any longer!
You shall not leave the house after 9pm.

Again, this distinction is less strictly followed nowadays, but it’s advisable to be aware of it if you’re writing formal English. Given that legalese is very formal, you’re likely to encounter shall in legal documents or in rules and regulations:

The primary residence of the children shall remain with the mother.

The evidence on the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) reveals that there are 187,945 instances of shall on this two-billion-word database. When we break these figures down by subject, 46,030 (24%) of the occurrences of shall fall into the Law subject area, meaning that they are unlikely to be expressing the future tense, and most probably are referring to a legal duty or formal instruction.

Will you stop that!

Will, but never shall, is also used to ask or order someone to do something:

√   Will you buy some bread while you’re at the shops?
√   Will you stop making that noise!
X   Make me a coffee, shall you?
X   Shall you sit down now!

However, if you want to express yourself more politely in such requests, it’s better to use would or could:

Could you buy some bread while you’re at the shops?
Make me a coffee, would you?

Shall we dance?

Although shall is far less common than will, which has over 7 million occurrences on the OEC, all is not entirely lost with regard to shall! It has its place in the limelight when it comes to questions, when it’s used in British and American English to make suggestions or offers, or to ask for advice:

Shall I shut the door?
Where shall we go today?
Shall we go for a drink?

The view from America

Turning to the OEC to analyse American usage, we find that shall is not only less frequent than will, but it’s also less common than in British English: 28.7% of the total occurrences are British, while 17.8% are American. When talking about the future, will is dominant and shall seems to have fallen into disuse. According to Garner’s Modern American Usage, shall is ‘peripheral’ and occurs mainly in questions expressing suggestions or seeking agreement and in legal usage (see above). Garner also states that ‘in law it is declining because of increased recognition of its hopeless ambiguity as actually misused by lawyers’.

Secondly, the shortened form of shall not, namely shan’t, is rare in American English. Of the total number of 993 instances of shan’t on the OEC, only 130 (about 13%) are categorized as US English.

Back to Cinderella…

Overall, you can rest assured that, especially when talking about the future, will and shall are equally acceptable, and very few people’s hackles will be raised should you inadvertently use will with a first person pronoun. In general, it appears that shall is becoming a neglected linguistic ‘Ugly Sister’ and is unlikely to experience a fairytale ending. As Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage states: there is not much doubt that will will win, and shall shall lose, in the end.

Image credit: Andy Lidstone / Shutterstock.com

Image credit: Andy Lidstone / Shutterstock.com

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