AskDefine | Define shall

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sceal, of Germanic origin. Compare Dutch zal.


  • (stressed) /ˈʃæl/, /"S

Extensive Definition

The English language is atypical in many aspects of verb use; one of these aspects is the discussion of the future. English has no single simple verb form to express future, such as exists in many other languages. In consequence, the area of the future is often a great confusion for learners of this language; and many traditional comments about the distinction between shall and will, which are based on a reading of social use and not on the actual meanings of the verb forms, have only served to muddy waters still further.
Shall and will are both modal verbs in English primarily used to express the future. However, neither shall nor will is the principal method of expressing what is going to happen in the future.


Both shall and will are verbs of ancient Germanic ancestry. In Proto-Indo-European, an inflected future tense existed, but that tense was lost in Germanic. In all Germanic languages, the future tense is formed with auxiliary verbs; this was the case in Gothic and the earliest recorded expressions of Germanic languages.
The verb shall represents Old English sceal, and is cognate with Old Norse skal, German soll, and Dutch zal; these all represent *skol-, the o-grade of Indo-European *skel-. All of these verbs function as auxiliaries in each language, and represent either simple futurity or necessity.
The verb will is cognate with the noun will, of course, and continues Old English willan, which represents *willjan. It occurs in Old Norse vilja, German wollen, Dutch willen, Gothic wiljan; it has many relatives outside of Germanic as well, including, for example, Latin velle "to wish for"; the root also occurs in voluptas, "pleasure." All of these forms derive from the e-grade or o-grade of Indo-European *wel-, meaning to wish for or to desire.
In addition to shall and will, other verbs were used as future auxiliaries in Old English, including mun, directly related to Old Norse munu and a defective verb that is the immediate source of Scots maun, and related to Modern English must.
Both verbs are preterite-present verbs in Old English, as they were generally in Germanic. This means that in their conjugation, they were conjugated in the preterite tense with present meaning. They show this status by the fact that they are conjugated in the third person as she shall (as opposed to *she shalls.) Will can be conjugated in both ways (she will, she wills) with a difference in meaning; the simple present form is not used as an auxiliary verb. The forms should and would are neologisms made with the dental suffix of the weak verbs.
To the extent that it is claimed that shall and will carry different meanings depending on which grammatical person they are conjugated in, they represent an example of suppletion, the commingling of words from separate roots into a single paradigm. The two words have entirely different etymologies, and the distinction cannot be justified on etymological grounds. It is doubtful if there ever was the distinction claimed between "shall" and "will" in the language.
According to Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, the distinction, or supposed distinction, in meaning between shall and will as markers of a simple future arose from the practice of English schools in the fourteenth century and their Latin exercises. It was the custom in these schools to use will to translate Latin velle; because shall had no exact equivalent in Latin, it was used to translate the Latin future tense. John Wycliffe used it consistently in this manner in his Bible translation into Middle English. Will was already beginning to predominate as the marker for the simple future through all grammatical persons in English, and is the usual marker for a simple future in Chaucer, for example. The usage of the schools kept shall alive in this role.
The most influential proponent of the distinction was John Wallis, whose 1653 Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae stated "The rule is... to express a future event without emotional overtones, one should say I shall, we shall, but you/he/she/they will; conversely, for emphasis, willfulness, or insistence, one should say I/we will, but you/he/she/they shall".

Historic former usage

Whether the prescribed usage had basis in common usage or only ever existed inside the minds of grammarians, it is largely or completely ignored by American, Scots and Irish speakers of English, which constitute the majority of English-speaking people. Nevertheless, the differences between the two words were once thought by some people to be real, so much so that Dwight D. Eisenhower was reputed to have fired an aide who could not understand the (then supposed) distinction between "shall" and "will."

"Pure" forms of "shall" and "will"

Shall and will are now most often used as auxiliary or modal verbs. However, they have their origins as main verbs and in what is known as the pure system are still used in their original Old English senses, regardless of grammatical person:
Hence the following forms were felt to be required usage:
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Shall I open the door?
  • You should not say such things.
  • And shall Trelawney die?
  • Whom should he meet but Jones? (...was it his fate...)
  • Why should you suspect me?
  • It should seem so. (It would apparently be incumbent on us to believe)
  • I will have my way.
  • I (he) asked him (me) to do it, but he (I) would not.
  • I would not have done it for the world.
  • I would be told to wait a while (Habitual).
  • Will you come with me?
  • I would I were dead.
  • He will bite his nails, whatever I say.
  • He will often stand on his head.
  • You will still be talking (i.e., you always are).
  • A coat will last two years with care.
(examples from Fowler)

Simple future

Old English did not have a future tense, but because the verbs shall and will hint at one, they were conscripted by the language's development and became modal verbs.
In declarative sentences under the pure system, shall is not used in the first person, since one does not usually give commands to oneself. Therefore, shall became the auxiliary verb for expressing simple futurity in the first person. Will, on the other hand, is not often used in the second and third persons in statements under the pure system and so second and third person will became the auxiliary verb for expressing simple futurity in the second and third persons:
  • Shall and its past tense form should denote simple futurity in the first person.
  • Will and its past tense form would denote simple futurity in the second and third persons.
Hence the following were supposed to be the proper forms of expressing simple futurity:
  • I shall, you will, die some day.
  • Shall I, will they, be here to-morrow?
  • We should, he would, have consented if you had asked.
  • Should we, would he, have missed you if you had been there?
  • I should, you would, like a bath.
  • Should I, would he, like it myself, himself?

Modal future

As a modification of the simple future, the verbs shall and will are used to express the speaker's wish, intention, menace, assurance, consent, refusal, promise, offer, permission, command, etc. Under this colored future system, the verbs are really used as extensions of the pure system verbs shall and will:
  • Shall and its past looser tense form should denote the modal future in the second and third persons.
  • Will and its past tense form would denote the modal future in the first person.
  • I will tell you presently. (My promise.)
  • You shall repent it before long. (My menace.)
  • He shall not have any. (My refusal.)
  • We would go if we could. (Our conditional intention.)
  • You should do it if we could make you. (Our conditional command.)
  • They should have had it if they had asked. (My conditional consent.)


Shall is sometimes stronger than will: "You will stay?" – "I shall not." Will can also be used to express command: "You will do your homework." Alternatively, surprisingly, to soften a request, though would is more common here. "Will you kindly hand me that pen?" (Or "Would you kindly...")
In technical requirement specification, shall and will are distinguished by NASA and Wikiversity as follows:
  • Shall is usually used to dictate the provision of a functional capability.
  • Will is generally used to cite things that the operational or development environment are to provide to the capability being specified. For example, "The building's electrical system will power the XYZ system."
Another point to note is that the auxiliary used in questions should be the one expected in the answer: "Shall you accompany me?" – "I shall." To use will here would be a request; going-to future would express more the intention than mere futurity. For example: "Should you like it?" expects the answer "Yes, I should" or "No, I should not", whereas "Would you like it?" expects the answer "Yes, you would" (or the corresponding negative) from the same speaker (or used rhetorically), since "you would" is the right form for the speaker, but not for the respondent (if he exists).
The first-person distinctions taught by the prescriptive grammar tradition in British English may give rise to ambiguities for hearers who do not draw the same distinctions. *The Archbishop of Canterbury said that we should all sin from time to time.

Current usage

At the beginning of the 20th century, the various special cases made it necessary for Fowler's The King's English to devote 20 pages to the rules for shall vs. will, with the comment "the idiomatic use, while it comes by nature to southern Englishmen ... is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it".
According to the English grammarian Charles Talbut Onions, the correct idiomatic use of shall and will was an infallible test of the true English speaker, since American, Irish, and Scottish speakers have such difficulty using the words correctly. There is an illustrative old joke about the Scotsman who drowned in a river because he had cried "I will die! Nobody shall help me!"
Many current authorities, however, regard this approach as too formal, arguing that will is displacing shall in most situations. Some dispute whether the rule ever applied. For instance, the Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage, OUP, 2002, says of the rule for the use of shall and will: "it is unlikely that this rule has ever had any consistent basis of authority in actual usage, and many examples of English in print disregard it". The rule has even less force in American English, where shall has a much more restricted role, and the negative contraction shan't does not occur. Indeed, in America, "I will" and "we will" are the usual forms, and anyone using "shall" in all but a few situations run the risk of being thought haughty or pretentious.
The old should-would distinction partially lives on with its sense of obligation (which is really command expressed in the conditional) for should, whereas would has lost any identifiable sense of wish except as an archaism or affectation; it is now used exclusively as a simple-conditional; should is synonymous with ought to.
Nevertheless, there are notable remaining uses of shall and ‘‘should’’, which remain present in modern language:
  • Legal codes use "shall" and "shall not" to express mandatory action and prohibition.
  • Songs and poetry may use "shall," as in "I Shall Be Released", "We Shall Overcome", and "Shall We Gather at the River?"
  • A speaker who normally says "I will" or "I'll" may use "I shall" as a marker of irony.
  • In many parts of the English-speaking world (but not in the United States), shall is the normal form for first-person offers and suggestions of the type: A: It is a bit hot in here. B: Shall I open a window? (In the United States, the speaker would say, "Should I open the window?" and in parts of Ireland, the speaker would say, "Will I open the window?")
  • Other uses noted below
In American English, the supposed traditional differences are not observed except in the limited case of formal legislative acts. Should and would, which are under no threat of extinction, are both used either as conditionals or to refer to future events in the past; should to express obligation, and would to express a conditional copula.

Technical jargon

In many requirement specifications (particularly in software), the words shall and will have special meanings. Most requirement specifications use the word shall to denote a requirement. The word will is reserved for a statement of fact. However, some documents deviate from this convention and use the words shall, will, and should to denote the strength of the requirement. Well-written requirement specifications define these words near the beginning of the document.
For example, on standards published by IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission), ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), requirements with "shall" are the mandatory requirements, meaning, "must", or "have to". The IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) defines shall and must as synonymous terms denoting absolute requirements, and ‘‘should’’ as denoting a somewhat flexible requirement, in RFC documents.


The negative form of shall is shall not; the contraction is shan't. Shall is pronounced in two different ways:
  • The non-stressed form:
  • The strong form: /ˈʃæl/
Shan't is always pronounced /ˈʃænt/ or, in Broad A accents, /ˈʃɑːnt/.


  • Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: (Merriam-Webster, 1989) ISBN 0-87779-132-5
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