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"Shall" Versus "Will"

How British is it to use “shall”?

By
Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #119

Shall in America

In America, will has replaced shall in all but a few cases. If you use shall in the British way during normal conversation, you might end up sounding pretentious or haughty (2).

The most common two places you’ll see shall in America are in legal documents and in lofty prose (3).

The Legal Shall

Shall in a legal sense often indicates explicit obligation. If you’ve signed a lease lately, you’ve probably encountered a sentence like this: “This lease shall commence on January 1.” In general usage, though, you use must or should to express obligation: “You must pay your rent on time.” However, some sources say that even American lawyers may be moving away from shall because of its alleged ambiguity (1).

The Lofty Shall

Even if lawyers give up shall, great orators and authors will probably still use it to deliver uplifting prose. You’ll encounter shall in the Bible, and you’ve probably heard it in famous songs or speeches. “We shall overcome” comes to mind, as does the end of the Gettysburg Address: “…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” (4).

The Polite Shall

Shall does have a couple of other legitimate uses in American English. You might hear it in a first-person question in which the speaker is being polite or offering an invitation: “Shall I take your coat, ma’am?” or using playful formality, as in “Shall we dance?”

The Idiomatic Shall

It’s also possible to use shall in place of will if using will would be unidiomatic, for example, “I’ll just go buy some more milk then, shall I?” (1). However, to me, this sounds more British than American. “I would guess that most Americans wouldn't say that sentence,” Bonnie says. “It’s hard for me to tell because I was born and raised in London but then moved to America at age 10.

I think I tend to use shall more than my American-born husband, so I asked him his opinion. He stated, 'No American under 80 uses shall.'” That's probably 99% true, unless you’re a lawyer or a regular citizen who is being extra polite or quoting the Bible.

The bottom line is that will has replaced shall in almost all cases in American English. If you’re tired of using will, feel free to use be going to instead, as in “This podcast is going to be over momentarily.”

Administrative

This show was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at http://sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.


References

1. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 706-07.

2. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 426.

3. O’Conner, P. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, p. 71.

4. http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm (accessed July 2, 2008).

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