The Difference Between “will” and “shall”

By Maeve Maddox

Reader Eric wonders about the uses of will and shall.

When do you use “will” and “shall?” I know that [they] mean the same thing, but I would like to know when to use them in the correct grammatical sense.

In modern English will and shall are helping verbs. They are used with other verbs, but lack conjugations of their own.

Both are signs of the future tense.

The old Walsh English Handbook that I used in high school gives this rule for forming the future:

Use shall in the first person and will in the second and third persons for the simple future tense:
I shall sing this afternoon.
You will succeed.
He will stay at home
.

My observations suggest that shall is rarely used by American speakers.

The two words existed as separate verbs in Old English, the form of English spoken from 450-1150 C.E.

The verb willan meant “wish, be willing, be about to.”

The verb sculan (pronounced [shu-lan], had the meanings “be obliged to, have to, must, be destined to, be supposed to.”

In modern usage traces of the old meanings persist for speakers who use both forms.

Will can imply volition or intention, while shall can imply necessity:

I will scale Mount Everest. (“and no one can stop me!”)

You shall take the garbage out before you do anything else. (“You have no choice, Junior!”)

A second element enters into the use of shall and will.

As a matter of courtesy, a difference exists according to whether the verb is used with a first or second person subject. Which to use depends upon the relationship between speakers.

Parents, teachers, employers, and staff sergeants are within their rights to tell someone “You shall complete this assignment by 9 p.m.” Such a construction offers no alternative. It is the same as saying “You must complete this assignment.”

In speaking to an equal, however, the choice is left up to the other person:

I shall drive to Tulsa today. You will follow on Tuesday. (It’s still up to you.)

Here’s a frequently quoted joke that illustrates the consequences of using shall and will incorrectly:

A foreign tourist was swimming in an English lake. Taken by cramps, he began to sink. He called out for help:
“Attention! Attention! I will drown and no one shall save me!”
Many people were within earshot, but, being well-brought up Englishmen and women, they honored his wishes and permitted him to drown.

All of which is the short answer to Eric’s question. For the long answer, take a look at Fowler (Modern English Usage) and the OED.

By the way, the verb will in the sense of “bequeath” derives from the noun will in the sense of “wish.” A will expresses the wishes of the person who writes it. The verb will (bequeath) does possess a complete conjugation.

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40 Responses to “The Difference Between “will” and “shall””

  • Rana Aamir

    i find out the answer of my question about will and shall and i am happy for this because the answer is very simple see below.
    “Shall” – when use as a helping verb, it implies a sense of doubt an action is going to happen;

    “Will” – as a helping verb, an action is sure to happen, no if, no impediments or barriers.

    “Shall” cannot or may not be used as a noun; “will” can be such as: “the will of the father.”

  • Josh

    I think Ben has it down pretty well. The only thing I’d say is that shall, when used in an interrogative form, seems to be more of suggestion when the answer is thought to be known, while will seems to be asking a legitimate question.

    “Shall we dance?” and “Will we dance?” are good examples of this.

    By the way, guys, the 1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person rule doesn’t make sense. Every one of the above examples for said rule have complete interchangeability while retaining the same meaning. Using different tenses is where you might want to watch out, though most of the time, it still fits. You probably have to be more careful about switching would and should with will and shall.

    “Should we dance?” while in the colloquial sense pertains to the righteousness of dancing, but can also be synonymous with “Shall we dance?” Although this fits, should cannot always be interchangeable with shall, such when used in the past tense. Using the verb “have” in accordance with should denies all variability of should and shall. Would, though, is different, in that it is not generally interchangeable with will, though should is just as interchangeable with will as it is with shall. Would implies that it asks the same question as will and shall, but only as an “if” statement. “If I were to talk, would you listen?” asks “Will you listen to me talking?”, but does not necessarily imply that the questioner will be talking. Even more confusing is that should, and even shall and will, can replace would in most contexts, though would cannot always replace should. “If I would talk, I would talk all day.” is the same as saying “If I should (shall/will) talk, I should (shall/will) talk all day.” There is the exception, though, such as “I would never do that.” implies there is a moral disposition to not do such a thing, while should/shall/will in that case implies certainty with no reason why.

  • Dev

    Perhaps this is a matter of little importance, but why does it seem that contributors on this site think so many words are missing from colloquial or even formal American English? My friends and I say “shall” interchangeably with “will” very frequently.

  • Ben

    I am an English teacher in Mexico, and I can assure you that no distinction is made between shall and will in the (very modern) coursebook we use. Indeed, ‘shall’ is not mentioned until at least level 3, and then only in passing.

    The fact of the matter is that 90% of the English speaking world does not acknowledge any difference between the two words, and certainly no one abides by the so-called rule of using ‘shall’ in first person.

    After reading this article and the comments I am convinced that there is a subtle shade of difference (a ‘matiz’, as Mexicans say): that ‘shall’ is more forceful or insistent than will. Hence in the example given, the ‘polite’ people misinterpreted the drowning man’s statement of fact as a command to not help him.

    I recall another example from Cinderella: ‘you SHALL go to the ball’. It sounds rather more assertive and defiant than ‘will’.

    In conclusion, I’d advise learners to just use ‘shall’ when they want to make a point of some future action, or for a future imperative. Otherwise, not to worry about it 🙂

    Ben.

  • jet

    difference between he shall prosper and he will prosper?

  • Ata Iscen

    In my mind, the difference is:

    ‘shall’ is the politely way of saying ‘will’

    for example:

    Thank you for contacting us. We shall get back to you as soon as possible.

  • nou sreymom

    I want to know that how do we use “shall” in rule or general natural?

  • Anisha

    As per my understanding, the 1st logic is simple to understand, i.e., shall to be used with ‘1st’ person and will with ‘2nd’ and ‘3rd’ person. The 2nd logic is not at all clear to me.

    Regards

  • Matt

    Long ago I was told that the difference between shall/should and will/would is this: God wills, man shall.

  • rachel

    thanks alot now i know the different of shall and will

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