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Will or shall?

November 1, 2013

I’ve been marking lots of essays on children’s literature recently – it’s a living – and I came across the following sentence: “Three different versions of Little Red Riding Hood shall be examined to see what was considered important at the time of publication.”

Shall be examined – why did that jar with me? The rules of when to use shall and when to use will are a little complicated and not generally understood. There just seems to be a vague feeling that shall sounds more formal (perhaps because it is used slightly less often?) But that’s not right. Here are the rules, as I understand them: shall is used for the first person, both singular and plural: I shall, We shall. It’s frequently used to make offers: Shall we dance? Shall I wash up?

For all the other persons, will is used. (You will meet a tall dark stranger, etc)

But – and this is where it gets complicated – for emphasis, this rule is reversed. So if I say, “I shall just have another glass of wine,” and someone says, “No, you won’t,” I might well switch and say “I will!”

Similarly, for a neutral, unweighted prediction about the future in the third person, will would normally be used: “Do you think they’ll make it?” ”Yes, I expect they will.” But to express determination or resolve about a third person, shall is correct. For example, when Maréchal Pétain vowed to stop the German army at Verdun, he said “Ils ne passeront pas!” – which is always (correctly) translated as “They shall not pass!” (“They will not pass” would just be a prediction, not an expression of resolve.)

Therefore it’s not correct to say “Three different version of Little Red Riding Hood shall be examined” (unless you were insisting on it in the teeth of opposition). It would, however, be correct to say “I shall examine three different versions of Little Red Riding Hood.”

I hope that clears that up. 

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  1. I feel an urge to thank you for that! Now, will you sort out ought and should, and some other annoying pairs?

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