Etymology Grammar Usage

Shall we blog?

Q: Growing up, we learned that “shall,” indicating intention, should be used only with the first person. So it was correct to say “I shall go to school tomorrow,” but not to say, “He shall stay home.” Legal formulas, however, often use “shall” for the third person: “The party of the first part shall etc.” So, shall I ask you for a comment? Or shan’t I?

A: It’s interesting that although we’ve been writing this blog every day for five years, we’ve gotten only one request to explain the distinction between “shall” and “will.”

Call it a sign of the times. The old tradition that drew a strict line between “shall” and “will” has gone, unlamented, to the grammatical graveyard in the US and it’s on the way there in the UK.

Here’s the old tradition in a nutshell:

● When expressing a future tense, use “shall” with the first person (“I” and “we”) and “will” with the second and third persons (“you,” “he,” “she,” “they,” etc.).

● When expressing determination, permission, or obligation, use “will” with the first person and “shall” with the second and third persons.

Americans seldom use “shall” these days. However, “shall” is still common in legal usage, as you note, and in polite questions (“Shall we dance?” … “Shall we go?” … “Shall I freshen your coffee?”).

“Shall” is also heard in set expressions (“We shall see” … “We shall overcome”). And of course it’s familiar to many of us because of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s vow, “I shall return!”

How did the old tradition come about?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says it was “first set down in the 17th century by John Wallis, a bishop and a well-known mathematician.”

Wallis, who’s credited with introducing the ∞ symbol for infinity, wrote about “shall” and ”will” in an English grammar book written in Latin: Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae.

But it’s been pointed out that his rules didn’t reflect the practices of the preceding century. And even in his own time, M-W says, the “shall”/“will” distinction wasn’t consistently observed: “sometimes usages match the rules and sometimes they do not.”

As for usage today, Merriam-Webster’s observes: “It is clear that even in the English of England there has always been some deviance,” while in America “there has been considerable straying from the Wallis rules.”

“Our conclusion,” M-W adds, “is that the traditional rules about shall and will 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.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language agrees with Merriam-Webster’s that even in England “shall” isn’t universally used in the traditional way.

In the future tense, the editors write, “we must allow will as well as shall for the 1st person—and modern usage manuals recognise this. Will (including the contracted variant ’ll) is in fact very much more common.”

We shan’t say any more about it, at least for now.

Check out our books about the English language