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All About Shall (vs Will)

When we talk about the future, most often we’ll use words like will or be going to:

They will arrive tomorrow afternoon.
I’m going to see the match.

However, there is an alternative: shall.

These days, people often talk about shall as though it’s on its way out and that before long it’ll be consigned to the garbage heap along with other archaic words like foresooth and verily but they are wrong. It’s alive and kicking and putting up a stiff defense!

The Grammar of Shall

Let’s get the grammar of shall out of the way first because it’s pretty straightforward.

Grammatically it’s used in the same way as will. Very simply it sits before the main verb to talk about the future:

will/shall + {verb}

I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in my class!
I shall not tolerate this kind of behavior in my class!

And to make the negative it’s also the same. Note that the shortened negative form is:

I shall not leave!
I shan’t leave!

So we can say that grammatically speaking wherever you have will you can have shall and the two – again grammatically speaking – are interchangeable.

That last point is important: grammatically speaking they are the same but it’s in usage and meaning where they vary.

The Meaning of Shall

In a very general sense, shall tends to be have a more profound meaning than will.

Will talks about the future in everyday terms. Shall makes what you say very important and prophetic.

I’ll go to the store and I’ll get a bottle of milk.
I shall cross the desert and I shall find King Soloman’s Mines!

Famously in Lord of the Rings, Sir Ian McKellen playing Gandalf utters the immortal phrase:

You shall not pass!

Which in English sounds so much more profound because it uses shall instead of will.

The Usage of Shall

But let’s talk about when we use shall instead of will.

First, it’s good to know that in American English shall is basically ignored and will is used all the time (unless you want to sound very educated indeed). If you never uttered the word shall in America you would be fine.

But elsewhere it’s a slightly different story. In British English if you are saying something slightly profound you can use shall, especially if it’s about yourself with I or we:

I shall look into it, your Majesty.
I shall never stop loving you!
We shall succeed, you watch us!
We shall not be moved!

Looking at the statistics, you can see that we shall and I shall are by far the most common occurrences of shall. Then, in descending order:

you shall
he shall
they shall
she shall

So whilst some grammars tell you that shall is ONLY used with we or I, this is simply not true. We can use it with other pronouns – although it is increasingly rare.

NB the same applies to questions; we use shall I and and shall we far more than we do with other pronouns.

Shall and TEFL

So what happens in the TEFL classroom?

As long as your students understand the meaning of shall (i.e. that it is the same as will but more profound) then they need never use it, certainly never for exam or communication purposes.

By teaching them that it’s used only with I and we and that it’s only used when dealing with something very meaningful, you will have covered the majority of uses and life will be fine.

In other words, keep things simple in the classroom and keep shall for special occasions. Explain it and move on, don’t dwell on shall because for practical TEFL purposes it’s an interesting diversion and not worth pursuing with the majority of classes and students.

Some Graphs of Shall

Shall is dropping in usage, more so in AmE, but also in BrE.

This first graph shows use of shall vs will in AmE over the past 200 years or so.

Shall Will American English

It’s a similar story in BrE although there’s less of a gap between the two.

Interestingly, if you look at this next graph you’ll see how the use of we shall and we will has changed in American writing over the past two hundred years. For many years we shall was far more popular but then in the 1960s there was a dramatic drop in the number of occurrences and essentially the two changed places with we shall dropping dramatically and we will gaining use.

We Will and We Shall in AmE

Compare that to the use of we shall and we will in BrE and you’ll see both are still very popular but again, they crossed over a few years ago, possibly because of the influence of American language on British?

We Shall and We Will in BrE

NB these graphs come from Google n-grams.

Useful Links

Future Simple‏‎ in English Grammar – talking about the future in English.


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