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Which is the correct use of these two words, and in which context should one be used rather than the other?

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  • Another interesting and important question is why we have these two words to form the future tense? What's the origin of the words, and why have both survived? Will both survive?
    – Charlie
    Aug 6, 2010 at 1:14
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    It is very interesting to see answers to related question that @Edward Tanguay included in his answer: "I often have wondered in which parts of the world (England?) and which social echelons using "shall" in statements is actually still practiced by native speakers?"
    – rem
    Aug 7, 2010 at 17:04
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    In the US defense industry, product specifications contain the word "shall" to identify contractual obligations as in "The system shall handle 100 widgets per second". If the word "will" replaced shall in that sentence, the requirement would not be considered a contractual obligation. The people who write system specifications and statements of work use "shall" throughout engineering documents to indicate those capabilities the system must have to meet the spec. Yes the language sounds stilted, but every "shall" reinforces the contractual nature of the requirement.
    – John Satta
    Jan 14, 2011 at 20:45
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    @John S: not just in the defense industry, it's common in formal requirement specifications. (e.g. in the medical products industry as well) Apr 16, 2011 at 15:09
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    When you attend your local Renaissance Festival.
    – patrick
    Sep 8, 2011 at 16:04

10 Answers 10

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Here is a good description of when to use shall:

...shall is used for the future tense with the first-person pronouns I and We: I shall, we shall. Will is used with the first-person (again, I refer to traditional usage) only when we wish to express determination. The opposite is true for the second-person (you) and third-person (he, she, it, they) pronouns: Will is used in the future tense, and shall is used only when we wish to express determination or to emphasize certainty.

However, growing up as a native American speaker in Colorado, I never used "shall" in normal speech. However, I believe in questions it has become more common, e.g. Shall we go? but an American native speaker saying e.g. "I shall do that for you" will almost always sound affected or connote a Shakespearean context. I often have wondered in which parts of the world (England?) and which social echelons using "shall" in statements is actually still practiced by native speakers.

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    "I shall" sounds odd in colloquial British English too.
    – psmears
    Jan 12, 2011 at 20:38
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    @Noldorin that is the connotation given by the use of "shall" it seems. When imagining someone saying "You shall (not) do this.", I imagine a figure in authority attempting to be overbearing. Thinking along the lines of the 10 commandments "Thou shalt not", the word of someone in authority telling you how to do something. Feb 20, 2011 at 20:41
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    The main place I've seen the word used is in rulebooks, emphasizing the connotation of certainty; "when a penalty is called, the official shall place the puck at the closest face-off circle..." etc. As was said, it's all about the authoritative connotation of that word versus "will".
    – KeithS
    Jun 14, 2011 at 21:21
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    As an Englishman living in Ireland I'm still aware of the difference here. My Irish wife will usually say "will we go to the cinema today?" which still sounds to my ears like she's asking me to predict the future, whereas she's clearly expressing intent. Needless to say I seldom say "should we go to the cinema?" these days as it sounds to Irish ears old-fashioned and a bit snooty :)
    – tinyd
    Aug 15, 2011 at 16:16
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    @edward-tanguay 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.
    – user46705
    Jun 27, 2013 at 10:24
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Don't forget that 'shall' at the start of a question is used to make a suggestion:

Shall we play tennis?

But 'will' at the start of a question does not have the same meaning:

Will we play tennis?

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    "not the same meaning" is not clear enough for non-native speakers Sep 10, 2011 at 20:34
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    ^Or native speakers for that matter
    – dwjohnston
    Jul 24, 2015 at 1:41
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    In this context, shall is a suggestion or invitation; Will is seeking clarification of intent.
    – Dan
    Oct 10, 2015 at 23:11
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The note about the usage of shall in the New Oxford American Dictionary is the following:

There is considerable confusion about when to use shall and will.

The traditional rule in standard English is that shall is used with first person pronouns (I and we) to form the future tense, while will is used with second and third persons (you, he, she, it, they): I shall be late; she will not be there.

When expressing a strong determination to do something, the traditional rule is that will is used with the first person, and shall with the second and third persons: I will not tolerate this; you shall go to school.

In practice, however, shall and will are today used more or less interchangeably in statements (although not in questions). Given that the forms are frequently contracted (we'll, she'll, etc.), there is often no need to make a choice between shall and will, another factor no doubt instrumental in weakening the distinction. In modern English, the interchangeable use of shall and will is an acceptable part of standard U.S. and British English.

When I started my classes on British English, I was taught that I shall go home was the future tense of I go home; asking to a person living in the east coast of the USA, I learned that I shall be late (or I shall return) has a slightly different meaning from I will be late (or I will return), at least in some contexts.

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    +1 Interesting. As an example of "will" to indicate a strong determination to do something: "Will you marry me?"
    – b.roth
    Aug 13, 2010 at 10:49
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    @Bruno Rothgiesser: Yes, indeed. Another interesting example of the way the two words are sometimes used to express different shades of meaning is the story of two (hypothetical) drowning men - one calls "I shall drown, and nobody will save me"; the other "I will drown and nobody shall save me". The former gets rescued (because he is expressing his fear); the latter does not (because he is expressing his determination to perish)!
    – psmears
    Jan 12, 2011 at 20:41
  • @b.roth: the "Will" in "Will you marry me?" is a second-person verb, so it actually isn't a case of "will" being used to indicate strong determination to do something under the traditional rule.
    – herisson
    Feb 28, 2018 at 21:48
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"Shall" originally indicated owing to do something. "Will" originally, and sometimes still, indicates a desire to do something. Eventually, they both came to indicate the future, but "will" usurped the place of "shall," at least in my part of Virginia. As far as I can tell, "'ll" has since taken the place of will. :)

EDIT: Should have included a link or two to begin with, not to mention double-checked my answer. Whoops, sorry.

Etymology of "will": http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=will

And as opposed to "shall": http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=shall

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  • "Would" indicates a desire. "Will" does not. Aug 13, 2010 at 5:43
  • @Vincent: Actually, I did misremember the meaning of "shall," but will does indicate desire. I'm editing in a link.
    – kitukwfyer
    Aug 13, 2010 at 13:54
  • is right. Will does indeed indicate desire.
    – Noldorin
    Jan 14, 2011 at 19:57
  • +1 for the etymologies! I didn't know that site existed, looks like a great resource.
    – Noldorin
    Jan 14, 2011 at 19:57
  • See my comment to the OP that "shall" is a legal contractual obligation (in the US defense industry) and "will" or any other word indicates just "nice to have".
    – John Satta
    Jan 14, 2011 at 20:48
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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shall_and_will

Shall and will are both modal verbs in English used to express propositions about the future. According to the New Oxford Dictionary of English, In modern English the interchangeable use of shall and will is an acceptable part of standard British and US English.

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    This is a bit too generalised. 'Acceptable' by whose standards?
    – Matthew
    Sep 12, 2011 at 17:14
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    It's not quite even true. In most dialects, shall and will are not interchangeable in first person questions. Apr 3, 2012 at 18:45
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Collins English Dictionary defines 'will' and 'shall' as follow:

Will: (you, he, she, it, they, or a noun as subject) used as an auxiliary to make the future tense.

Shall: (I or we as subject) used as an auxiliary to make the future tense.

So:

  • I shall be at home tonight.

  • Will you come round.

Let us use 'will' instead of 'shall', if we want to emphasize. So:

  • I will be ready on time, I promise.

  • I do not care what your wicked stepmother says: you shall go to the ball.

But if you want to see what may happen when we reverse 'will' with 'shall', and vice versa, read the following sentences:

  • I shall drown, no one will save me. (I should like to be saved but everyone is ignoring me.)

  • I will drown, no one shall save me. (I am determined to drown. I forbid anyone to throw a life belt.)

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    The dictionary might say that, but no one uses 'shall' in AmE (it's recognizable from the Christian Ten Commandments an legal documents, but no one would naturally use it in speech or writing). I don't know about BrE.
    – Mitch
    Apr 5, 2012 at 13:43
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    @Mitch Collins has: Usage: The usual rule given for the use of shall and will is that where the meaning is one of simple futurity, shall is used for the first person of the verb and will for the second and third: I shall go tomorrow; they will be there now. Where the meaning involves command, obligation, or determination, the positions are reversed: it shall be done; I will definitely go. However, shall has come to be largely neglected in favour of will, which has become the commonest form of the future in all three persons. >> To be fair, this might be a post-2012 addition. Mar 3, 2016 at 14:46
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    @EdwinAshworth For US English since at least forever (60's is forever, ain't it?), 'shall' is never spoken. It is recognized in legal and religious text. Dictionaries are notoriously out of date and this is one glaring example.
    – Mitch
    Mar 3, 2016 at 15:00
  • @Mitch (1) I was responding to your final comment about 'BrE'. (2) Glaringly out of date? It says ' However, shall has come to be largely neglected in favour of will, which has become the commonest form of the future in all three persons.' (3) However, 'Shall we go to the cinema tonight?' can't be idiomatically substituted here in the UK. Mar 3, 2016 at 20:35
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In some situations will and shall may point to different sources of motivation to act in a particular way—namely, an internal source versus an external source. As an example (in the third-person singular) of the compulsory aspect of shall versus the volitional aspect of will, consider this exchange from Henry James's short story "Covering End":

“And what has she [Cora Prodmore, Mr. Prodmore's daughter],” he [Mr. Prodmore] appealed, “expected me to give up? What but the desire of my heart and the dream of my life? Captain Yule announced to me but a few minutes since his intention to offer her his hand.”

She [Mrs. Gracedew] faced him on it as over the table. “Well, if he does, I think he’ll simply find—”

“Find what?” They looked at each other hard.

“Why, that she won’t have it.”

Oh, Mr. Prodmore now sprang up. “She will!”

“She won’t!” Mrs. Gracedew more distinctly repeated.

“She shall!” returned her adversary, making for the staircase with the evident sense of where reinforcement might be most required.

Mrs. Gracedew, however, with a spring, was well before him. “She shan’t!” She spoke with positive passion and practically so barred the way that he stood arrested and bewildered, and they faced each other, for a flash, like enemies.

The progression here is from Mr. Prodmore's emphatic "She will!"—his assertion that Cora Prodmore will marry Captain Yule of her own volition—to his even more emphatic "She shall!"—his assertion that she will do so under pressure from Mr. Prodmore. Though in the first instance Mr. Prodmore has no doubt that his daughter accepts the inevitability of the marriage that he intends to bring about, his authoritarian intensity increases in the second instance as he shifts from expressing confidence in her intentions to expressing confidence in his ability to force his expectations upon her.

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In some contexts, such as legal contracts or formal standards, shall indicates an obligation or command, whereas will might be interpreted as an observation or prediction.

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shall/should is stronger and heavier in emphasis than will/would. Eg. statements that I can think off right off my mind for comparison in connotation would be:

He shall/should be doing it.

versus.

He will/would be doing it.

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Another distinction I've heard people make is that "shall" implies a deliberate action and "will" implies a result ("I shall sing and the crystal will crack"). Strictly conversations, so no authorities to quote here.

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  • Yes in some cases, no in others, but the differences, if ever they existed, have become blurred lately. Jun 26, 2013 at 13:18

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