The Difference Between “will” and “shall”

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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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41 thoughts on “The Difference Between “will” and “shall””

  1. A previous project set out in the contract the meaning of will and shall when used in formal (reviewed and signed off) project requirements.

    When encountered in formal software requirements, ‘shall’ means the contract isn’t complete until the requirement is met; ‘will’ means you have to justify not meeting the requirement, but it won’t hold up the product.

    ‘Should’ or ‘may’ gives lattitude – authorization to meet the requirement

    The garage door remote opener shall cause the garage door to open and close on activation. The opener shall operate remote to the door. The remote opener will perform all functions when within 150 feet of the door. The remote opener may operate the door when aimed within 30 degrees of the center of the door, for intuitive operation.

  2. And who can forget the compelling form of shall most of us are familiar with, “thou shalt not…” It illustrates the intent of shall quite clearly.

  3. We were just talking about this in my legal drafting class. In our book, using “shall” creates a legal duty, while using “will” doesn’t.

  4. Constitutions and Bylaws of one of my organizations switch back and forth between “will” and “shall” no matter that there’s a distinction between them.

    For next time, I shall keep this in mind.

  5. Makes sense: “will” relating to, well, one’s will. However, I had a slightly different take (had because now I’m not sure 🙂 ).

    My assumption was that “shall” implies one is being compelled to do whatever, while “will” simply states a fact. As in… “I will go to the store” states what I’m going to do and “you shall go to the store” says that you had better go to the store–or else.

    So “I shall drive to Tulsa today. You will follow on Tuesday” sounds to me like like I am being compelled to drive to Tulsa, perhaps by contract or at gunpoint, while you, as a matter of fact, will follow.

  6. While touched on when mentioning, “…while shall can imply necessity…,” you and your readers may be interested to know that the difference between the two is forced when describing “standards” for product performance in the medical field. My earliest experiences were in the early- to mid-70s, wherein the standards writers DEFINED the difference such that “shall = you must” and “will = you should or you may.”

  7. Neil,
    Your comment, along with those of Brad and Brett, provides the very interesting information that the distinction between “shall” and “will” is of great importance in specialized areas such as medicine, law, and product design.


  8. Bill,
    In ordinary speech, “I shall” can’t imply external compulsion since the speaker is the one doing the “shalling.”

  9. silly,
    Could you give me an example of a construction in which you would have difficulty deciding whether to use “for” or “of”?

  10. For is used for many things – in the place of; in favour of; on account of; in the direction of; with respect to; in respect of; by reason of; appropriate or adapted to, or in reference to; beneficial to; in quest of; notwithstanding, in spite of; in recompense of; during; in the character of; to the extent of. “For” is usually a preposition.

    “Of” is another preposition – from; from among; out from; belonging to; among; proceeding or derived from; made from, having for material; having or characterized by; in the manner that characterizes; with respect to; owing to; with; over; concerning; during; by; on; in; specified as; constituted by; short of, to (in giving time, e.g. quarter of five) (US); measuring; aged; owning.

    “Of” describes membership, “Blue,” he shouted, as an example of a color of the sky. “For” almost relates a transition – from the latin ‘per’ or through.

  11. silly,
    Brad K has certainly provided an exhaustive list for “of” and “for.”

    If you’ were looking for a shorter answer, perhaps this will help:

    The preposition of usually indicates possession:
    the book of my aunt, the King of England, the color of the sky

    Perhaps the most frequent meaning of for is “on account of,” or “on behalf of”
    I bought a gift for my mother.
    Do it for the Gipper.

  12. I have seen a bit different usage of the words will and shall by Indian English speakers. Will is used when you have the willingness to do something, while shall is very rarely used and often replaced by should.

    For example, the very common use of shall in India is “Shall I?” asked when you are asking permission from a superior to come forward and try something for him. It is used in the contexts for the first person volunteering to do something for the other person and asks permission whether he/she can.

    And the example “I shall drive to Tulsa today. You will follow on Tuesday.” is often delivered as “I am (or will be) driving to Tulsa today and you will follow on Tuesday”. This is often taken in the meaning that am driving to Tulsa today and you will (in a bit of authoritative sense, as in suggesting out a plan) on Tuesday. People, he in India, mostly assume that “will” in the above sentence means “they have to”.

    May be most Indian English speakers need to read this article 😉

  13. This is a further question on the use of “shall” and “will”……

    In the Bible, when “shall” is used, what is the interpretation? The newer translations seem to be unclear.
    Please comment.

  14. There is a clear difference between “shall” and “will”:

    “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.”

  15. shall is used for the future tense with the first-person pronouns I and We: I shall, we shall. Will is used with the first-person (again, I refer to traditional usage) only when we wish to express determination. The opposite is true for the second-person (you) and third-person (he, she, it, they) pronouns: Will is used in the future tense, and shall is used only when we wish to express determination or to emphasize certainty.

    see the site below, hope it’ll help u

  16. Hi,
    I am still confused about the usage of “SHALL” and “WILL”, somewhere its written, if its the person, Shall should be used and for second and third person, will should be used and then we are talking about, if it is decided, we use WILL, if its dicy, then we use Shall. Please give me a concise description, so that I understand the actual usage.

  17. “”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!”)”

    that part explains it cleraly, thank you so much

  18. I have many years of experience working for defense contractors on government contracts. I am a software test engineer who writes system level test procedures used to verify the system meets all system requirements set forth by the customer (Uncle Sam) before being accepted by the customer. In the system level specification (SRS) a requirement statement is indicated when the word “shall” is used. If a statement uses the word “will” it is a suggestion and “should” be complied with, but will not hold up the acceptance of the system if not met.

    … and that’s a fact Jack!

  19. Above all, what is shown by these attempts at fixing the distinction between the two verbs is that the language moves like a river, inexorably. ‘Shall’ in most contexts sounds old, the chief exception is when it is used as an auxilliary – ‘I shall catch cold if I don’t get out of these wet clothes’.

  20. ”will”puts the verb in the future tense , meaning it tells of something that will happen in future ”shall” is used when you want to say the way things should be ,not neccesarilly how they are going to be the will and shall are helping verbs they are used w\ other verbs ,but lack conjugations of their own

  21. Me, I am more confused than ever. To quote this again:

    ”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!”)

    If instead you replaced the wills with shalls and vice versa, the meaning implied by the constructions would be exactly the same.

    “I will scale Mount Everest”. “I shall scale Mount Everest”. I see no difference in meaning. Both imply an intent to climb the mount.

    “You shall take the garbage out”. “You will take the garbage out”. Both imply an unarguable instruction to take the garbage out.

  22. Benjamin,

    The difference between will and shall depends, to a certain extent, on context.

    Proper use of will always conveys mere intent. Shall conveys compulsion. In contract areas, in software requirements language, and certain other venues, using will means that the goal or intent is strongly desired, but you might still get paid if you just get close, or talk to the customer.

    Shall, in a contract sense, often means part of the contract isn’t met – and often the contract price is adjusted accordingly.

    In certain contexts the difference between will and shall is pretty serious.

    When you state you shall climb the mountain, you imply that your mind, your intent, cannot be changed. That is, you apply a compulsion on yourself to climb the mountain. Stating an intent to climb the mountain, that you will climb it, instead acknowledges other factors might override your choice, such as weather, family illness or mishap, injury, or a chance to drive the first space ship to Mars an back, carrying Mel Brooks, Rick Moranis, Joan Rivers, and Bill Pullman (from Spaceballs, 1987). Or a gift certificate for five pounds of (very good) chocolate.

    In casual conversation and informal usage, the difference between intending an action, will, and being compelled to act, shall, is often overlooked. That doesn’t change the proper usage, nor address the contactual, formal implications.

  23. And I thought a quick reference to the combined minds of the internet might resolve my will & shall problems.
    After reading several web sites & 32 comments here, I remain utterly confused. I am a native speaker of English & reasonably interested in preserving logical rules of grammar, but this has become plain silly.
    I will clearly never automatically get it right, if indeed there is a right, & how dare any group (medical, legal engineering contracts etc) hijack language rules.
    The yanks have it under control here – there is no difference.
    Let’s celebrate the maturing of a living language & the gradual elimination of supposed distinctions that exist only in the minds of a few.
    Now for that apostraphy rule!

  24. 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.


  25. 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.

  26. 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 🙂


  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.”

  30. I always think of my childhood book, in which Andy Pandy and Teddy have tea and decide who is going to pour: “Will you be mother or shall I?” Said Andy Pandy.
    Andy is asking Teddy if he wishes to pour the tea; if he does not, then Andy has to.

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