Shall we? I think not
I remarked once that the shall/will distinction, which I was taught in English class in elementary school—it was a rule, dammit—has almost completely vanished from spoken American English and is largely absent from written American English. If, for example, you do a search for shall on this blog, you’ll turn up no more than a couple of dozen examples, some of them quoting older texts.
But shall remains established in legal writing, I was quickly advised. And so it does. Now Robert Lane Greene, writing at Johnson, the language blog of The Economist, endorses the Plain Language Action and Information Network’s* suggestion to abandon shall. It is imprecise, PLAIN argues: “It can indicate either an obligation or a prediction. Dropping ‘shall’ is a major step in making your document more user-friendly.”**
I have my doubt that shall will ever be dropped from legislation, given lawyers’ slavish devotion to precedent. But I am fairly confident that in common speech and common writing, shall is going the way of whom, surviving in a handful of stock phrases and expressions—shall we dance?—or as an element in efforts to achieve an archaic effect.
*Yes [sigh], the acronym is PLAIN. The temptation to strain and stretch a title into something that will yield an acronym that is also a word, viz., the odious PATRIOT Act, is apparently irresistible.
**Almost immediately, “LaContra” loaded and discharged a blunderbuss:
I'm really starting to resent this tedious drive for drab homogeneity, simplistic articulation, and dull expression in language. I see no reason to regress simply because many people fail to appreciate style, flair, and exuberance in the written word.
Perhaps I am too old to consider 'txt spk' and 'twittering' attractive or particularly useful. Perhaps I appreciate an education which promoted and understanding of grammar and the cache of a large vocabulary.
So I shall resist RLG and his nefarious effort to impose 'Plain Language' upon the readership! I shan't ignore the placement of apostrophes, I shall continue to never end a sentence with a preposition, nor shall I split infinitives. I shall even strive to retain the serial comma before the word 'and' as the coordinating conjunction. ...
I didn't endure having English grammar and vocabulary lessons beaten into me as a child simply to abandon in middle age because of the whim and fancy of the tedious texting majority!
It might be difficult to find a single text more abounding in the fallacies of peevery. We have the disdain for the Young People, who, you know, text, quelle horreur; we have the introduction of the irrelevant, since texting has nothing to do with the entry in question; we have the conspiratorial suggestion that some sinister cabal is trying to impose something on the English language; we have the flourishing of shibboleths about prepositions and infinitives that were exploded generations ago; and finally, we have the empty I-suffered-through-it-and-so-must-you argument. In its own way, the comment is brilliant in undermining itself. The Queen’s English Society could hardly have done it better.