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  1. The candidate's statement shall not exceed two hundred words.

  2. The candidate's statement may be two hundred words but not longer.

I think there is no difference in meaning between these sentences, but I'm uncomfortable with the first one. Can I always use the second one in any case? Or is the first sometimes preferable?

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What makes you uncomfortable with the first one. It seems fine to me. I'd say they were interchangable. –  Urbycoz Aug 10 '12 at 13:53
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It's a bit forceful. Granted. It sounds like an order, rather than an instruction. I guess it depends entirely on context and what your intension is, as to which you choose. –  Urbycoz Aug 10 '12 at 14:03
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It is an order, and it's framed in legalese. Correctly. Only legal documents use shall with third person subjects. The two lead to the same semantics, but have quite different pragmatics, as they should. –  John Lawler Aug 10 '12 at 14:14
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If rigorous and pedantic accuracy is required, add the words "in length" after each instance of "200 words" in the answers. Some examples in answers do not unambiguously rule out statements more than 200 words long but using fewer than 200 distinct words. –  jwpat7 Aug 10 '12 at 15:45
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@JohnLawler Shall used this way is hardly used "only in legal documents". It is ubiquitous in any formal tech-standards document. Indeed, RFC 2119 strictly defines SHALL to be full equivalent to MUST. It defines other key words, too: The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as. . . This is for technicians not lawyers. Well, supposedly. –  tchrist Aug 10 '12 at 17:41
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8 Answers

The first way is more succinct and avoids joining parts with "but". It is also more specific as you know that 180 words is acceptable. Written the other way, it is not clear that 180 words is acceptable. Reading it literally, it means that only 200 words is acceptable. It is only when the tailing "but not more" comes along that you guess that less than 200 words is implied. "But not more" is customarily written as "but no more" when referring to a quantity.

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In legalese (legal writing), the verb "shall" establishes a firm contractual or legal REQUIREMENT, whereas other verbs ("to be" or "may") do not carry the same implied legal requirement. According to this Wikipedia article, this particular use of "shall" is referred to as "shall" as obligation and has its roots in the original Old English meaning of the word "shall" which implies a social requirement or compact.

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See RFC 2119 for formal definitions of words like SHALL, SHOULD, RECOMMENDED, NOT RECOMMENDED, MAY, REQUIRED, MUST, MUST NO,T OPTIONAL, &c as used in formal technical specifications. –  tchrist Aug 10 '12 at 17:45
    
This is by far the best answer to date. It correctly identifies the sense of "shall" used in the question and it supports itself with citations. –  MετάEd Sep 3 '12 at 18:26
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I think the first sentence gives a negative meaning, so the main point is restricting the candidate from having a statement longer than 200 words. The second sentence in its turn has a more positive pattern, it states that there is a lot of space to fill, but also kindly reminds that the space is limited however.

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The use of "shall" is the proper legalese. It implies no exceptions to the rule, whereas "may" leaves open the unstated possibility. To put it in politer terms than legalese, one could simply say

The candidate's statement may be no more than two hundred words.

which is a succinct way to say the same, leaving open the possibility that less than two hundred words would also be acceptable.

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I think I would prefer the first in most instances. The second one sounds too indirect, and doesn't seem well-written.

If you don't like shall, simply change it to may:

The candidate's statement may not exceed two hundred words.

I might also suggest:

The candidate's statement shall be two hundred words or less.

(that's a relatively common way to phrase it.)

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The first statement is a perfectly acceptable way of imparting the instruction albeit in an authoritative manner. I would expect to see this form in, for example, job applications, welfare benefit applications, pseudo-legal and technical documents, etc. An alternative and often used variant is 'the candidate's statement should be no longer than 200 words.' This is slightly friendlier in tone.

The second example is a construction that, in BE at least, would sound less usual than the others.

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Should sounds more like a suggestion. That might be friendlier in tone, but it also might lead people to believe they can bend the rules, turning in a statement that's, say, 208 words (which might be fine, if everyone is cool with that). –  J.R. Aug 11 '12 at 1:25
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I'd go with

The candidate's statement shouldn't exceed two hundred words in length.

Your first phrase sounds too authoritarian (to me, at least), while the second one might be read as requiring the statement to be exactly 200 words.

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I fail to see how second statement can be interpreted to mean exactly 200 words. –  Nikita Aug 10 '12 at 18:49
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You can use the second one in any case, I can't think of a case where the first is preferable.

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