Shall and Will

Commonly Confused Words

shall and will
(Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)

The verbs shall and will both point to the future, but in contemporary American English, shall is used only rarely. In British English, shall and will are often used interchangeably with little or no difference of meaning. According to linguist R.L. Trask, traditional rules regarding shall and will are "little more than a fantastic invention."

Internationally, will is now the standard choice for expressing future plans and expectations.

However, in first-person questions shall is often used to express politeness ("Shall we dance?"), and in legal statements, shall is used with a third-person subject for stating requirements ("Rent shall be paid when due, in accordance with the terms hereof").

See the usage notes below. Also see the Simple Future Tense,
 

Examples

  • "I signed the lease. Incredible. In the middle of all this fine print, there was the one simple sentence, 'There shall be no water beds.'"
    (John Updike, "Gesturing." Playboy, 1980)

     
  • "Stuttering, Bessie told him what had happened to her. She showed him the handle of the key she had clutched in her hand all night.

    "'Mother of God!' he called out.

    "'What shall I do?' Bessie asked.

    "'I will open your door.'

    "'But you don't have a passkey.'"
    (Isaac Bashevis Singer, "The Key." The New Yorker, 1970)

     
  • "[W]hen people come and see me they always say, 'Shall we meet in the local pub?'"
    (Simon Russell Beale, quoted by Imogen Carter and Kathryn Bromwich, "What Goes On in the Wings." The Observer [UK], November 20, 2016)

     
  • "If you do not eat your potatoes, you will be upset, and I will be upset; your father, clearly, is already upset. If you do eat your potatoes, I shall be pleased, you will be pleased, your tummy will be pleased."
    (William Goldman, The Princess Bride. Harcourt, 1973)

     
  • "I will go home, Bessie decided. People will not leave me in the streets."
    (Isaac Bashevis Singer, "The Key." The New Yorker, 1970)

     
  • "Humans need to find a new planet within 1,000 years to keep the species alive, Stephen Hawking said in a talk this week. Hawking, the noted theoretical physicist, said that humans will likely expend the planet’s resources in that time."
    (Justin Worland, "Stephen Hawking Gives Humans a Deadline for Finding a New Planet." Time, November 17, 2016)

Usage Notes

  • "[T]here's simply no reason to hold on to shall. The word is peripheral in American English."
    (Bryan A, Garner, Garner's Modern English Usage, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 2016)
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  • The Traditional Rules
    "There is a traditional textbook ruling that runs as follows. For simple futurity, you use shall after I or we but will after everything else, while, to express determination or command, you use will after I or we but shall after everything else. By these rules, the required forms are We shall finish tonight (simple statement) versus We will finish tonight (expressing determination), but They will finish tonight (simple statement) versus They shall finish tonight (an order).

    "As grammarians never tire of pointing out, these bizarre rules do not accurately describe the real usage of careful speakers at any time or in any place in the history of English, and they are little more than a fantastic invention. If you are one of the handful of speakers for whom these rules now seem completely natural, then by all means go ahead and follow them. But, if you are not, just forget about them, and use your natural forms.

    "Do not try to use shall if the word does not feel entirely natural, and especially don't try to use it merely in the hope of sounding more elegant. Doing so will probably produce something that is acceptable to no one."
    (R.L. Trask, Say What You Mean! A Troubleshooter's Guide to English Style and Usage, David R. Godine, 2005)
  • The Hazy Distinction Between Intention and Futurity
    "[T]he distinction between intention and futurity can be hazy, and grammarians of C17 and C18 devised an odd compromise whereby both shall and will could express one or the other, depending on the grammatical person involved. . . . Research by Fries (1925) into the language of English drama from C17 on showed that this division of labor was artificial even in its own time. These paradigms were however enshrined in textbooks of later centuries and still taught a few decades ago. Their neglect is one of the better consequences of abandoning the teaching of grammar in schools."
    (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • British Uses of Shall and Will
    "British people use I shall/I will and we shall/we will with no difference of meaning in most situations. However, shall is becoming very much less common than will. Shall is not normally used in American English. . . .

    "Shall and will are not only used for giving information about the future. They are also common in offers, promises, orders and similar kinds of 'interpersonal' language use. In these cases, will (or 'll) generally expresses willingness, wishes or strong intentions (this is connected with an older use of will to mean 'wish' or 'want'). Shall expresses obligation (like a more direct form of should)."
    (Michael Swan, Practical English Usage, Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Where Shall Survives
    "In colloquial and indeed all spoken English . . . will is fast displacing shall in all cases in which shall was formerly used and in which we are recommended to use it. . . . It survives chiefly in first person questions, where it usefully distinguishes 'Shall I open the window?' (as an offer or proposal) from 'Will I need a towel?' (= will it be necessary). It is useful that the construction 'll stands for both shall and will."
    (Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage, edited by Janet Whitcut, W.W. Norton, 1995)
  • AP Style
    "Use shall to express determination: We shall overcome. You and he shall stay.

    "Either shall or will may be used in first-person constructions that do not emphasize determination: We shall hold a meeting. We will hold a meeting.

    "For second- and third-person constructions, use will unless determination is stressed: You will like it. She will not be pleased."
    (The Associated Press 2015 Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, Basic Books, 2015)

Practice

(a) Let's go into the church, _____ we?

(b) If you build it, he _____ come.

(c) Martha _____ bring the salad.

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

Answers to Practice Exercises: Shall and Will

(a) Let's go into the church, shall we?

(b) If you build it, he will come.

(c) Martha will bring the salad.

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words