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shall and will

July 9, 2019

At Earls Court Station yesterday, changing from the District to the Piccadilly line, I was startled to hear the announcer say: ‘The next lift shall be lift number 4’. This announcement was also electronically displayed in writing above the lift, so it wasn’t a one-off mistake by the announcer, but a scripted, official announcement, and the woman who read it out had an authoritative, RP accent.

Shall be. Obviously she meant will be, but what forces pulled her towards shall?

Let’s remind ourselves of the rules. In the simple future tense, shall is used for the first person: I shall, we shall. For all the other persons, will is used.

This form is used for simple predictions (It will rain tomorrow), or unemphatic statements about future arrangements. (You will find the key under the mat). It doesn’t indicate any particular attitude about future events, like resolve or determination, and it is not used for stipulations.

Here is the complication: when one does want to show an attitude of resolve or determination, or one wants to lay down a stipulation, the rule is reversed. So then I shall becomes I will, and you will becomes you shall (You shall go to the ball!). It’s often used to respond to a contradiction eg:

‘I think I shall stroll down to the pub tonight.’

‘No you won’t.’

‘Yes I will!’

It is also used in legal documents to stipulate requirements or obligations: ‘The author shall take every reasonable care…’

I think because of this legal use, the word shall has come to be seen as simply a more formal and impressive-sounding alternative to will. That train announcer, or whoever wrote her script, thought she was sounding very proper and official. In fact it came across as ‘The next lift shall be lift number four, all right? And I’ll deck anyone who says it won’t.’

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6 Comments
  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Thanks Brandon. Obviously, I knew all of this already because I remember Carl Murray explaining precisely these rules in a Latin lesson at school.

    I had not noticed the legal use of ‘shall’, but now you have brought it to my attention it makes sense and I will be on the lookout for it in the future.

    A lot of court cases are spent arguing about costs, and the leading commentator on costs wrote an article on the archaic costs orders that used to be thrown around once the case had been decided one way or the other. A favourite used to be that the loser ‘shall pay the utmost costs’. The author laconically commented that ‘no-one knew what this meant, but it made everyone feel better’.

    On the subject of mistakes that appear on electronic notice boards, on Sunday evening we went to BST at Hyde Park to pay homage to the wonderful Barbra Streisand. As well as being an amazing singer, she is also well-known for her tantrums if things are not exactly as she wants. She will not have been amused, therefore, to see that some minion had typed her name wrong on the electronic sign that proclaimed her to the 65,000 audience as ‘BarbAra Streisand’. Somewhere, a head is going to roll.

  2. Peter Howell permalink

    Great post as ever, Brandon. I’ve never noticed the ‘over-correction’ of replacing ‘will’ with ‘shall’ in instances where the speaker is trying to be formal – inevitably, student essays and corporate communications – in a similar way to the use of ‘however’ as a conjunction instead of ‘but’, something I think you’ve posted on before. To muddy the waters a little further, most grammarians don’t think of English as having a future tense at all, but as using either present tense or a number of modal verb constructions to indicate futurity. And all but the most prescriptive grammarians don’t insist on the will/shall distinction as you’ve described; ‘will’, in practice is used in most instances. If you actually said, without irony, ‘I shall go to the pub tonight’, I’d ask you which character from Brideshead Revisited you were fantasising about becoming. Even in legal discourse, that determinative usage is discouraged, because it’s unclear (particularly in the US). All of which goes to show that one shouldn’t, in most cases, use expressions that don’t feel intuitive.

    • Peter Howell permalink

      In first I meant ‘also’ rather ‘never’. Damn autocorrect!

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Google reveals 14,101 songs containing shall and 226,610 containing will so songwriters aren’t as emphatic in their declarations as they sound.

  4. That’s an interesting statistic. But we should note that ‘will’ is emphatic when used in the first person (or at least that is the traditional rule), and I’d guess it’s used in the first person in most of those songs.

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