• 3-minute read
  • 17th August 2018

Word Choice: Shall vs. Will

The words “will” and “shall” can seem a bit confusing. After all, while there is a difference of sorts, they’re both used to express the future tense. Do we really need both, then?

The short answer to that question is “not really.” We don’t really use “shall” in modern English. However, it is still useful to know the traditional distinction between these terms.

Shall (First Person)

Traditionally, “shall” was used to form the future tense in the first person. This means that we use “shall” with the first-person pronouns “I” and “we”:

I shall take a walk along the beach after lunch.

In modern English, we’d be more likely to say “I will…” in a sentence like this. However, in very formal or old-fashioned English, “shall” is technically the correct term to use.

“Shall” can also be used to ask a question in the first person. For instance:

Shall we go to the theater tonight?

In modern English, though, we’d be more likely to say “Should we…” in this situation.

Will (Second and Third Person)

In the second and third person, “will” is the traditional term used to express the future tense:

Will you be home in time for supper?

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He will miss his train if he doesn’t leave soon.

The first sentence above is in the second person and uses the pronoun “you.” The other sentence is in the third person and uses “he” (other third-person pronouns include “she,” “it,” and “they”).

Except for Emphasis!

You know everything we’ve said above? Well, you need to reverse it completely if you’re being emphatic! “Emphatic” here means making a forceful point. The most famous example of this is from Cinderella, where the Fairy Godmother tells the titular character:

You shall go to the ball!

Here, we see “shall” combined with the second-person pronoun “you.” This is because the Fairy Godmother was being emphatic. This is quite rare, but it is worth remembering in some cases.

Cinders: “It’s a bit small, isn’t it?”
Fairy Godmother: “Look, you SHALL go to the ball. Even if I have to force you into my tiny pumpkin carriage.”

Will or Shall?

In around 99.9% of cases, “will” is correct in modern American English. We simply don’t make the same distinction between “will” and “shall” as we used to. The only time you will need to use “shall” is if you’re being very formal. Probably the most common example of this is legal writing.

Nevertheless, it is worth knowing the difference between the traditional uses of these terms. It can be helpful, for example, when you come across “shall” used in old-fashioned writing. So remember:

Shall = First person

Will = Second and third person

Comments (1)
Nancy Huth
21st August 2018 at 04:17
Thank you, thank you, thank you for not letting "shall" die! As a Catholic school-educated person, "shall" and "will" were drilled into me. Even though I don't often say "shall" any more, I love to see it written and used correctly.

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