The Difference Between “will” and “shall”
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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