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In all of the places that I've ever lived (various parts of the western US), the modal verbs shall and will are almost perfectly synonymous, and will is preferred by an enormous margin. Shall is used largely to give a note of pomposity or archaism to an utterance that would otherwise have will.

However, I gather that this isn't the case in all parts of the English-speaking world. Does anyone know of a study or reference that shows the distribution of shall/will preferences? Are there any regions that maintain a rigorous semantic or grammatical distinction between them?

(Note: this is not a poll. Please don't answer with "Well, I say this.")

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  • Both the NOAD and the OED report that "the interchangeable use of shall and will is now part of standard British and US English."
    – apaderno
    Commented Apr 16, 2011 at 14:56
  • Related: "Shall" and "will".
    – apaderno
    Commented Apr 16, 2011 at 14:58
  • This is exactly the question I have been wanting to ask. Specifically, I'd like to know whether it is true that "shall" and "will" are still used the traditional way in certain conservative circles in England (I think, if anywhere, it would be there). Commented Apr 16, 2011 at 16:51

3 Answers 3

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If you haven't already, you might want to have a look at Mair & Leech's chapter "Current Change in English Sytax" in the Blackwell Handbook of English Linguistics. They give some figures of instances of modals in corpora from the 1960s and 1990s (both UK and US).

Among their conclusions are that there's no corpus evidence that 'shall' has declined specifically in the 1st person; it's simply declined generally, as have all of the 'rare' modals.

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  • The other 'rare modals' they're talking about being ought to. They claim use of the modal need has declined, but if you look at what they're saying carefully, need is just switching from being a modal to a semi-modal. That is, "You needn't come" is being replaced by "You don't need to come". Commented May 4, 2011 at 10:20
  • Yes, as I recall that's true. (Sorry don't have the full text in front of me just now.) Commented May 5, 2011 at 8:45
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I believe the only place there is still a distinction is in the first person plural interrogative.

Shall we is an invitation, and implies that we have some choice about the matter:

Shall we go get ice cream?

Will we is used when we have no say in the matter:

Will we be thrown in jail?

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  • Also first person singular interrogatives. Shall I make lasagne for dinner? Will I be paid for this project? Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 1:07
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A Concise Grammar of Contemporary English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum says this:

Will for future can be used in all persons throughout the English-speaking world, whereas shall (for 1st person) is largely restricted in this usage to southern British English (§3.37, page 47).

The book is from 1973, so it won't be completely current, but that gives some relatively recent indication.

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