Shall vs. Will

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:

shall

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:

shall

And here is one for the British corpus:

Shall

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?”

 

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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23 Responses to Shall vs. Will

  1. dw says:

    In spoken English, I use “shall” in polite requests such as

    “Shall I open the window?” (meaning “Would you like me to open the window?”)

    I like its brevity.

    On occasions when I’m feeling particularly BrE, I use “I shan’t”. I think it’s particular common in the collocation “I shan’t be able to [go, etc.]“.

    (BrE exile living in California last 15 years).

    • “Shan’t” is perhaps the best evidence that “shall” is more prevalent in the UK than here. The word is, to my knowledge, unheard of in contemporary American speech, but still prevalent in Britain.

      • Adri says:

        You are right. It is virtually unheard of in American English. The thing is, though, that my husband and I both use it occasionally. We also use “shan’t” but more in a silly affected way. We both grew up in Texas, but have been avid readers of classic literature all our lives, so I suspect this is where the use of shall comes from.

  2. dan bensen says:

    Thank you for such a great answer! NGram is the most awesome thing ever!
    The rule I heard from somewhere is that “shall/shan’t/should/shouldn’t” is for first person and will/won’t/would/wouldn’t is for second and third. Except when you want to emphasize the word, in which case you switch them. So “I shall go to the ball.” “You shall NOT!” And “I shouldn’t have believed it, had I not seen it with my own eyes.”

    Another possible cause for the decline of shall: like “whom” it not only makes a distinction nobody cares about any more (conjugation of modal verbs is SO 1300), it’s very hard to hear in spoken English. Jist like the m in “whom” vanishes, both shall and contract to ‘ll.

    Another question: if should is the past tense of shall, when did it start to develop its modern meaning of “it would be a good idea”? My gut feeling is that the rise of advice-should tracks the fall of “must.” Quick! To the NGram!

    As to the Britishness of “shall,” maybe I’m reading that chart wrong, but it seems to me like they use it ten times more than we do in America.

  3. Ellen K. says:

    “Shall” in the 2nd person definitely gives me the impression of a command or demand, moreso than “will. Probably entirely thanks to the 10 Commandments.

    Dw’s “Shall I open the window?” usage is also definitely familiar.

    In the first person usages (not in a question) it gives the feel of a promise. Whereas “will” is more just reporting what one expects to be true.

    All that is just my impression of other people using it. I don’t think I ever use it.

    American from the middle of the country.

  4. zpc says:

    Oh, goodness, I remember learning this in school, (Leicestershire, England) but I can’t quite remember what it was I learnt!

    I know the first-person uses were the opposite way around to the 2nd and 3rd, (so “I shall” and “you will” were equivalent apart from the person) and one was more… I don’t know, imperative?

    So “you shall have a fish” is a promise, whereas “you will have a fishy” carries a hint of “whether you like it or not.”

    Which would imply if I’m remembering rightly, “I shall be going, so get out of my way” vs “I will be going, if that’s alright?”

    But turn them into questions and “shall I go?” and “will he go?” are inviting discussion; “will I go?” or “shall they go?” are appealing to authority for a decision.

    I suspect it has to do less with the person per se and more to do with the relationship of the subject to the decision; “shall” implying a more empowered subject.

    …but the fact that I’m having to think about it implies a) the distinction is pretty fine (it’s clearer in the question-forms), and b) that the upper-middle/lower-upper class ‘correct’ teaching either didn’t stick on top of my native Midlands or was later swallowed by transplanted Yorkshire. To be honest, it’s kind of complicated by the way we use “I’ll”, “she’ll” etc to abbreviate both.

  5. Jan says:

    “Shall I open the window” is clearly a request. “Will I open the window” is clearly a reality test. Nothing coordinate about these two. They are migrating apart. Whom/Whilst/Shall are clearly relics. Keep careful track of those who use them habitually. They may do something anachronistic at any time.

  6. Kasia says:

    As a Canadian, I don’t think I ever used ‘shall’ at all back home. But then I started teaching English in Europe and ‘shall’ started coming up in textbooks all the time. I wasn’t sure what to do – teach it because it’s in the textbook or just ignore those pages? I’m pretty sure I told my first batch of students that it was never used in today’s speech.

    Then I started to notice that actually, in UK English it’s used quite often. I also started to appreciate the word. It’s more efficient and sounds nicer to say ‘Shall we leave?’ instead of ‘Do you (also) think we should leave now?’ And hearing English people around me using it, I’ve even started using it myself sometimes… But back in Canada, the word is so antiquated that I don’t think it would even sound pretentious, only odd :)

  7. dw says:

    In the movie “Singin’ In the Rain”, Gene Kelly’s elocution teacher says “Shall I continue?” just before the song “Moses supposes”.

    • Todd says:

      The pronunciation coaches in “Singing in the Rain” were all teaching Trans-Atlantic English (a hybrid of British English and posh American that was used in film and broadcasting at the time.)

      Now that you mention it, the word “shall,” in my mind, sounds very Trans-Atlantic/1930’s-movie-speak to me, perhaps even more than it sounds British. It sounds like something you’d hear Margaret Dumont would say in a Marx Brothers movie.

  8. Jastrow says:

    As a non-native speaker, I can say I believed until uni that ‘shall’ was an archaic word like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. My English grammar book for students states the same rule as Dan Bensen mentions: ‘shall’ for first person and ‘will’ for second and third persons—switch for emphasis. In formal usage of the language, my grammar book recommends to use ‘should’ instead of ‘would’ for first person, e.g. ‘I should be very happy if…’ instead of ‘I would be very happy if…’ I don’t think this use of ‘should’ would be understood by an international, non-native audience.

  9. ginger says:

    In non-spoken language shall still has its place: in law school, I read a few cases turning on the distinction between a law, ordinance, or contract using “shall” versus “must” or “will”. That’s sort of non-dialiectblog territory, though. Or maybe not: legal language tracks spoken language to an extent, and “will” and “must” are now recommended in legal writing because shall is too murky now that it isn’t spoken so often.

    In the U.S., I hear shall most often in the context of “shall we?” as a present or immediate future question – a sort of short form for “shall we sit?” when you are near an empty couch at a party, or “shall we go in there?” when you are passing by a cafe with a friend. Usually just “shall we”, without the rest of it spelled out. “Will we?” doesn’t work here (there is a degree of of uncertainty), and “should we?” feels wrong. Should calls to mind “ought” – is this something we ought to do? – and maybe too MUCH uncertainty.

  10. Marc Leavitt says:

    In AmE the use of “shall” is generally restricted to somewhat arch queries like, “Shall we go?” (question to partner, indicating the company, or play is boring you out of your mind, but you want to be polite).

  11. boynamedsue says:

    @Dan Bensen

    The chart appears to show Americans used it MORE than Britons, only drawing level recently.

  12. Eugene says:

    Like dw, I use shall in polite suggestions/questions like, “shall we..?” It’s always deontic (social obligation) and never epistimic (probability/possiblity) for me. I wouldn’t be likely to use it in a statement. I wouldn’t say “I shall return” because there’s no need to impose a social obligation on myself.
    To say “you shall…” or “he shall…” would be rather impolite because it’s too assertive. The past tense of a modal is more polite, so we tend to prefer “you should…”

  13. Tom says:

    I only use it for the sake of a jesting dramatic flair, and just the rare “Shall I?” or “Shall we go?” at that.

  14. Sooryan FM says:

    SHALL sounds old-fashioned and pretentious, just like IT IS I.

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  16. Danny Ryan says:

    I think there may also be case to argue that since “shall” and “will” have the same contraction with pronouns, such as “I’ll”, “we’ll” etc. that may lead to semanic overlap. And the fact that “will” has given up the element of volition “shall” has become quite obsolete.

  17. Brett says:

    I don’t know if this is ‘correct’ or not, but I use ‘shall’ to emphasise the intention to take an action — or indeed the threat to take one. My favourite use is in threatening letters to car salesmen, banks, etc, as in “if you do not give me a refund, I shall send the boys around to break your legs”.

  18. Julie says:

    I’m pretty sure I did not learn “shall” at home, and I doubt either of my parents has any use for it at all. But I was a bookworm at an early age, and picked up a few literary affectations early. So “shall” is a literary affectation, used only in first-person questions, that is, offers and invitations. “Shall we go and see what they’re up to?” “Shall I make us some lunch?” In both cases, it replaces something longer that begins with “would you like?” In second person, it’s much harsher-sounding than any request or order I would ever give, and in third person, I’m not sure that I can assign it any meaning at all. “Should” is completely separated from “shall,” and, when not being used for over-the-top literary effect (“if, perchance, he should come….”), always refers to a present-tense sense of obligation. “I should eat more vegetables.”

  19. Steve Bronfman says:

    Shall is still common in Australia.

  20. Sean says:

    I use ‘shall’ as an emphatic ‘will’, basically. (BrE Yorkshire)

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