A reader contacted me recently with a question about the modal auxiliary verb “shall:”
When did Americans stop using “shall” (and should as a first-person replacement for would) in normal conversation? … My guess is people had stopped using “shall” around 1900, but it took literature another fifty years or so to catch up. And I have a feeling it’s still sometimes used in British English.
“Shall” has been receding for some time now, as this NGram chart suggests*:
For perspective, here is a chart of several modal auxiliaries. While most others have remained relatively stable over the past 200 years (with the possible exception of “may”), ”shall” has clearly declined the most:
The word was perhaps always a bit less common than the other modals. But where it once vied with “could” for last place among these types of words, the latter emerged as the clear winner by the end of the 20th-Century.
It’s important to note, though, that it’s hard to make a case for the word’s Britishness based on NGram data. Here a chart of the word’s progress again, using just NGram’s American corpus:
And here is one for the British corpus:
So it’s arguably declined at a relatively comparable rate in both countries. Of course, we’re looking at texts, here, and the various literary and legal uses of “shall” probably distort things somewhat.
So why did the word fall from grace? I would speculate that, much like whom, the rules for “shall” may have made it less attractive to English speakers. Fowler begins his chapter on Shall vs. Will in The King’s English (1906) with a telling warning: “In apology for the length of these remarks it must be said that the short and simple directions often given are worse than useless.” Indeed, the “directions” that follow are downright mind-boggling. Here is a small excerpt (feel free to take a coffee break in the middle):
Reported questions present the same difficulties. Again those only are doubtful that belong to the plain future. There, for instance, reporting Shall you do it? we can say by the correct analogy I asked him whether he should; and we generally do so if the verb, as here, lends itself to ambiguity: I asked him whether he would do it is liable to be mistaken for the report of Will you do it?—a request. If on the other hand (as in reporting Shall you be there?) there is little risk of misunderstanding, I asked him whether he would is commoner. And again it is only in extreme cases, if even then, that the original W. can be kept when the report introduces I in place of the original question’s you or he. For instance, the original question being How will he be treated?, it may be just possible to say You had made up your mind how I would be treated, because You had made up your mind how I should be treated almost inevitably suggests (assisted by the ambiguity of making up your mind, which may imply either resolve or inference) that the original question was How shall he be treated?
For me at least, “shall” has too many competitors to be effective in spoken conversation. Why it seems more common in spoken British English isn’t an easy question to answer, though. It’s possible that a focus on more formal grammar, at least among some segment of that country’s population, has kept its circulation going longer. Or it could be for reasons of chance that can’t quite be explained. Or, apropos of the NGram charts above, it’s possible that “shall” has declined a good deal more among Britons than American impressions might suggest.
Do you use “shall?” And if so, how do you distinguish it from “will?”