Shall vs. will–which is best?
“When should I use ‘shall’ instead of ‘will’? ” I confess that this reader question stumped me. I can’t remember ever using the word “shall.” The question spurred me to do some research on the topic of shall vs. will.
First person vs. second or third person
A Grammar Girl post on “‘Shall’ Versus ‘Will‘” says that British and sticklers’ rules say that
- “…you use shall to indicate the future if you are using first person (I or we) and if you are using second or third person (you, he, she, or they).”
- “The British traditionally use shall to express determination or intention on the part of the speaker or someone other than the subject of the verb.”
- Lawyers and orators may use shall differently.
My old Associated Press Stylebook picks up the theme of determination, seen in Grammar Girl’s second point.
It says “Use shall to express determination: We shall overcome. You and he shall stay.”
A different take on shall vs. will from Garner
Garner’s Modern American Usage includes a table showing when to use shall vs. will to show “simple futurity” vs. “determination, promise, or command.” The table distinguishes between first person vs. second and third person. However, author Bryan Garner says, “with only minor exceptions, will has become the universal word to express futurity.”
Here are the two exceptions, according to Garner:
(1) interrogative sentences requesting permission or agreement <shall we all go outside?> <shall I open the present now?>; (2) legal documents, in which shall purportedly imposes a duty <the tenant shall obtain the landlord’s permission before making any changes to the premises>.
However, Garner notes that lawyers are using “shall” less.
I can’t imagine asking “Will we all go outside?” but I’m more likely to say, “Let’s go outside” or “Would you like to go outside?”
If you’d like to distinguish between “simple futurity” vs. “determination, promise, or command,” this memory aid from Joe Polidoro of Polidoro Marketing Communications, may help.
Accident: “No one will save me—I shall drown!”
Suicide: “No one shall save me—I will drown.”
The bottom line
If you’re an American communicating with other Americans, you can probably get away with using only “will.”
If you want to abide by the American rules, you should probably check your trusted American grammar reference. If you’re communicating with British people, who use “shall” more frequently, find a resource that you trust for the British rules. Here’s a post from Oxford Dictionaries: “‘Shall’ or ‘will’?”
I will not think less of you if you never use “shall.”
If you’d like some great references for checking your grammar, check out “My five favorite reference books for writers.” Also, try the quizzes I mention in “How can I brush up my grammar?”
Thanks, Doug, for suggesting this topic!
Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.
Note: I updated this post on Nov. 16, 2017, to add Joe Polidoro’s example.
Most of the time that I see “shall” in the stuff I read, it indicates that the writer has lifted language right out of a contract or policy. I always suggest paraphrasing (and using “will” or “must”) unless a direct quote is necessary.
Thanks for your comment, and thanks for supporting plain language!