Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | December 31, 2009

Shall and Will

From the correspondence between an author and an (anonymous) referee:

Whether the prescribed usage had basis in common usage or not, it is largely ignored by American, Irish, and Scottish speakers of English, who are a majority of English-speaking people.[3] 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 [British] 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 runs the risk of being thought haughty or pretentious.

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  1. I have been reading Robert Sokolowski’s engrossing and brilliant piece of work in the form of a book,The Phenomenology of the Human Person, for some time now, and in it he seeks to highlight that “the difference between the declarative and the informational uses of the word I [first-person pronoun] is analogous to the difference between the uses of shall and will that are recommended by English grammarians.”

    In particular, in a footnote, Sokolowski writes, “To express simple futurity (“the plain future”), according to these rules [expressed in H. W. and F. G. Fowler's King's English], one should use shall in the first person and will in the second and third person. To express a future marked by deliberation, obligation,
    permission, or menace (“the colored future,” marked by someone’s mood), one should use will in the first person and shall in the second and third.” To illustrate, “I shall be there in tomorrow’s meeting” simply conveys the information that I would be there in tomorrow’s meeting, but “I will be there in tomorrow’s meeting if you need me” conveys a deliberate intent of mine. On the other hand, Sokowloski notes, “On entering an elevator one will often see a sign that says, “The elevator shall not be used in case of fire.”” Indeed, a sign that reads, “The elevator will not be used in case of fire” makes much less sense.

    The above observation of Sokolowski’s makes a lot of sense notwithstanding the fact that, as noted in the quote you posted, one runs the risk of being labeled haughty and pretentious when respecting the difference in the “correct” usage of the words shall and will.

  2. It is widespread, but mistaken, to believe that languages have rules. They have no rules. All they have is common practices, practices which typically change over time and may not even be all that common, except within a particular sub-community of the community of speakers of the language.

  3. @Peter: Your statement that languages have no rules leads me to believe that you are perhaps subscribed (as I am myself) to the descriptive school of thought in linguistics. And, I suspect that my earlier comment (on the correct usage of shall/will) may have given you the impression that I am aligned to the prescriptive school of thought. I am well aware of where modern linguistics stands on the “war” between the two aforesaid schools. Even so, I think you are taking things too far when you claim that there are no rules in languages. Such a categorical statement contradicts most of modern linguistics. I mean, just take syntax in grammar, for instance. There certainly are rules that need to be observed in any grammar. Without rules, syntax (a vital component of grammar) cannot materialize.

    Anyway, I was earlier merely trying to emphasize the importance of intent (or its lack) when “shall” or “will” is used in a sentence. As I mentioned before, a sentence like “The elevator shall not be used in case of fire.” is more correct than one that reads, “The elevator will not be used in case of fire.”

  4. No, Vishal, I stand by what I said. Any so-called rule in natural language can be not adhered to and yet the meaning of the speaker can still be communicated correctly (ie, as intended by the speaker) to a hearer. There are no rules, there are only common practices. Indeed, if the language community is large enough, almost any common practice observed in one sub-community of speakers will be found not to be common in another sub-community of the same community of speakers. In other words, most so-called rules of (spoken) English are regularly broken by some group of English speakers somewhere in the world.

  5. I think Peter is right. There’s something like 65 million people in western Europe speaking a bizarre dialect of English that sounds exactly like French.

  6. @Peter: There are a few things, I think, you are muddling, here. I agree there certainly are “common practices” (to borrow your phrase) in regard to the pairing between sound and meaning in language. In the early part of the last century, Saussure, one of the founders of modern linguistics, called such pairing the arbitrary sign. That is, a sound in a language does not have any intrinsic meaning attached to it. A rose is called a ‘rose’ due to what you refer to as “common practices.” And, that’s precisely why we have dictionaries, which we can consider to be “products” of common practices!

    But, sentences (in English, say) are not composed merely of sounds or words. Those words form phrases (such as a noun phrase or a verb phrase) and they need to be combined in a proper order. This naturally gives rise to “rules” in grammar. For instance, English sentences typically are composed of a noun phrase (NP) followed by a verb phrase (VP). So, we have a meaningful sentence like ‘Tom walks to school’ that observes the rule I just specified above. Granted, in this example we can reverse the order of the NP and the VP without changing the meaning much: ‘Walks to school Tom’ seems to convey the same meaning even though it is quite convoluted. But, take another simple sentence: ‘They like ice-cream.’ We can twist it and write ‘Like ice-cream they’ to convey the same meaning (well, sorta), but when we embed that sentence as a phrase in another bigger sentence, we quickly run into trouble. ‘They like ice-cream very much’ cannot be twisted to yield ‘Like ice-cream they very much.’ The latter is completely nonsensical even though you may claim we can somehow extract the correct meaning from such a jumbled sentence.

    You can, of course, argue that people are free to change the rules of the English grammar to suit their own needs. But, then, by definition, you would no longer be speaking English! Of course, everywhere around the world non-native speakers of English create their own versions of English based on their native tongues. Such new creations are technically called creoles. But, a creole that arises from interaction between two or more languages is not the same as any of its “parent” language.

    Anyway, let us put aside this discussion for now and go back to the earlier discussion on “shall/will”. Do you see why the sentence ‘The elevator shall not be used in case of fire’ conveys what it is supposed to (If there is a fire, then don’t use the elevator), and that the sentence ‘The elevator will not be used in case of fire’ (If there is a fire, then no one will be using the elevator) fails to convey the correct idea?



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