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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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:32 AM | | Comments (17)


Well, you do as you please. Shall is part of my language and I expect I shall be using it until they hammer down the lid.

Isn't "to never end" a split infinitive?

The only two usages of shall in ordinary colloquial American English are:The invitational question Shall I VP?, always first person singular, which asks the addressee(s) whether they would like the speaker to VP right now (as opposed to Should I VP?, which refers to the speaker's potential VPing in the future, but still asks the addressee's opinion. In the invitational question Shall we VP, always first person plural inclusive, which is a direct invitation for the listener to join the speaker in VPing, immediately.
Aside from those idiomatic uses (frozen in syntax, person, and number), shall is effectively dead in spoken English. If it appears outside these constructions, it's generally a mark of either reading, or attempting to speak, formal written English.

Nenya: yes. Excellent, isn't it?

Mr Lawler: I suspect by "spoken English" you mean "spoken American English". Some of us from outside America have borrowed English for our own use, you know.

Ah, I see that bulleted lists are not considered "HTML tags for style" here. Ah, well. While I'm up, here's another link on the topic, with references, which I posted a few years ago on another forum.

I had no idea the "patriot" in PATRIOT Act was an acronym. Thanks for that nugget of information.

Re your rebuttal to the fustionator, "Hear him, hear him!"
Re the use of shall: I shan't tell you that I use it in conversation, because I try to speak the truth. Like most Americans, I occasionally say, "Shall we go?" when the boredom factor kicks in. I will say that English has two modal auxiliaries to indicate futurity, will and shall, and will has won out. I think, whatever sop we may give to nostalgia, that usage wins the day. While expressions like "Marry, come up!" mayhap served a turn in Shakespeare's day...

John Lawler: I think that Should I? can be used for present events as well as Shall I?, as in Should I shut the door?, which if the listener agrees will be followed immediately by shutting the door.

What is more, I also think that Should I? is beginning to take over this sense from Shall I? because it is seen as less pushy, in the same way that Would you? is a politer request than Will you?.

Great post. I fail to see how using the word shall would make my writing more exuberant.

I retain a certain nostalgia for the old shall/will distinction, which I think I first learned from reading Fowler. Though of course no one of my generation (American, born in the mid-1950s) ever made this distinction between the polite forms I shall and you will, expressing a sense of obligation on the speaker's part and an acknowledgement of the addressee's free will, and the more forceful I will and you shall, indicating the speaker's determination with regard to their own actions and an attempt to compel the obedience of the addressee. At least that is how I remember the old usage, which I never used myself. (Tellingly, MacArthur's "I shall return" gets it precisely wrong.) But I always liked the fact that English once allowed for this subtle sociolinguistic play, if not in the late 20th-century United States, then at least in our past and in the more class-conscious United Kingdom.

As I read your excellent anti-peevishness post, I remembered how you once brought a Rex Stout novel to one of your "seances" to illustrate how language changes. So I'm guessing you'll recall the time Nero Wolfe decided to take a woman's case at least partly because she said "We shall see" instead of "We will see." (In "Murder Is No Joke," I believe.)

I shall continue to use "shall." Also to eat food that the food police think I shouldn't. Drive cars the car police don't like. Smoke 'em if I've got 'em. Refuse to go 'green,' which is mostly a PR hook. Anything else?

I should warn you that I am digging another shovelful of quotes from the OED showing that "shall" has been used to mean "shall" by great writers since the time of, oh I don't know, one of the Anons, perhaps, and then I shall be penning a searing attack on anti-shallism as Prescriptivist Poppycock (comments off).

But as I tried to explain, sometimes "shall" means "will" and sometimes "will" means "shall" depending on whether I say it of myself or I say it of you, or indeed you say it to me. Now enough of this shilly-shallying!

And "Cinders, you SHALL go to the ball" is not the same if you substitute will or must.

As the nonbeliever said to the confirmed 'rapturist', " As God is my witness, this too SHALL pass."

(I wasn't inferring that my "unbeliever" wasn't a theist, just that he was convinced the rapture would not come to pass as predicted. An important distinction.)

Hope y'all are enjoying the un-Rapture. Don't fret folks, only a year, or so from now till the Mayan predicted apocalypse is upon us. Trust me, the ancient Maya Long Count calendar does not lie.

As we 'speak', Pastor Harold Camping, the latest great prognosticator, is at his local Radio Shack outlet in Podunk, U.S.A., demanding his cash back for the clearly faulty calculator that screwed up his nailing down the exact timing of the anticipated May 21st rapture event. (Why is that inane classic Monty Python Deceased Parrot sketch drifting into my consciousness about now?)

The young teenage clerk asks politely for his receipt, as proof of purchase, and a grumpy Camping barks back, "Don't have the ^%&#@*@ receipt, missy, 'cause I wasn't plannin' to be on this God-forsaken planet too much longer, so I plum tossed it in the trash bin.

She calmly replies, "Hmm......... good one, sir. if I had a dollar for every no-count customer in this there dismal town who came up w/ that very same excuse over the past couple of weeks, I wouldn't be workin' at minimum wage in this dumpy store. So what else have you got for me, mister?"

And so it goes.

Another installment in the sad end-of-times soap opera, "As The World Doesn't Turn". (Hope you folks have a lot of Kleenex on hand. Just sayin'.)


I shall continue to never end a sentence with a preposition, nor shall I split infinitives.

Hysterically funny stuff there, LaContra. Really - announcing that you will never split infinitives in the same sentence that you aggressively split one. Lovely way to show the hysterical self-contradictory, not to say uninformed nature of peeving.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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