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A friend of mine, pursuing BA(Hons) in English corrected me that no one uses shall now and often it is advised to prefer the use of should, would, etc.

Although Downton Abbey is set upon a time period decades ago, the characters make use of "shall" frequently in their sentences, I have noticed in some British movies and shows that the character make use of "shall" quite often. I couldn't help but notice that I never came across and American character making use of "shall" in an American TV show or movie, or maybe I missed catching the character making use of it.

What is with "shall" in this present-day? Is it obsolete now? Was it only used until contemporary era?

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    It's not quite obsolete. There are two productive, if minor, constructions that shall participates in; otherwise it isn't used in living speech. May 7, 2016 at 1:48
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    Possible duplicate of When should I use "shall" versus "will"?
    – tchrist
    May 7, 2016 at 2:29
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    I have to believe that expressions such as "Well, I shall be on my way" are still fairly common. "Will" simply doesn't sound right in such cases.
    – Hot Licks
    May 7, 2016 at 3:08
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    This is the first I've heard about shall's demise. Compare "I shall be at work until 4:00, and then I will come and look at your tractor", "I will be at work until 4:00 and then come look at your tractor", and "I shall be at work until 4:00 and then come look at your tractor". I would only use the first one, because I wouldn't substitute will for shall when composing a compound predicate anymore than I would substitute walk for run. And yes, I used to write specs and contracts, but I don't think that has much to do with it. I'm just wired to keep obligation and volition separate.
    – Phil Sweet
    May 7, 2016 at 5:10

7 Answers 7

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shall, verb –Google

(in the first person) expressing the future tense. "this time next week I shall [(will)] be in Scotland"

Personally, I shall allow shall to become archaic only over my dead body. It's not that I shouldn't or that I won't; I will.

The only time it replaces should is in the idiom "shall I..."

Admiral Piett: "Shall I hold them?"

Lord Vader: "No. Leave them to me."

I can't think of any instance where it should replace would.

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    Shall we consider this a bit further? It doesn’t replace should in first-person interrogatives. It has a different nuance.
    – tchrist
    May 7, 2016 at 1:58
  • I believe we both just validated that it is not archaic. See its nuances here.
    – Mazura
    May 7, 2016 at 2:16
  • the language of Piett / Vader is indeed deliberately meant to sound archaic. they're an Empire, recall.
    – Fattie
    May 7, 2016 at 2:59
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    @Joe Blow: And why should an empire be considered archaic? Unless your idea of archaic is close to "but that's so 15 minutes ago" :-)
    – jamesqf
    May 7, 2016 at 5:29
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    Admiral Piett in the Empire Strikes back is played by a Mancunian (British) actor. The link you posted underneath the OP's question is from Peter Pan, written by J.M. Barrie. How about finding some American English examples? :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 7, 2016 at 11:58
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In my (BrE*) speech "shall" is very much alive. In normal speech I say "I'll", but if I have reason to expand it, I'm as likely to say "I shall go" as "I will go".

And in a question, "Shall I" is much more natural than "Will I": I would say "will I" only when asking about a prediction or whether I will have permission or ability to do something in the future.

*Actually, this is one place where "British English" is an inadequate term, because Scottish English is different: many Scottish people do not use "shall" at all, even in permission questions: "Will I open the window?"

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  • The last bit of what you said is interesting. I'm sure you're right, but I've never heard "Will I open the window?" before, and am not even sure I would understand its meaning immediately.
    – tchrist
    May 7, 2016 at 13:39
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Shall is common in legal texts and related areas of writing, such as standards and specifications.

So common, in fact, that lawyers and judges are in constant debate as to its meaning. This alone is enough to make the word immortal.

A google search for “legal meaning of shall” should be enough to convince anyone. I chose the example below because I kind of like the University of Florida, but it’s one among many.

https://facultyblogs.law.ufl.edu/state-supreme-court-case-fuels-debate-over-shall-and-a-possible-solution-to-the-shall-problem/

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As a middle-aged American from the Northeast, I can confirm that the use of “shall” is alive (if not entirely well) among my cohort of speakers. I’m most inclined to use “shall” in an interrogative (shall I go to the store?) where in my usage the alternative (should I go?) implies an urgency or necessity (we’re all out of milk e.g.).

I’m just reporting here the style of usage I learned as a child, haven’t vetted it for its “correctness“. However, I do have the sense that the usage of “shall” is on the decline in popular American culture.

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I suggest that you become familiar with Google nGram Viewer and with Google Books for this sort of question. Here is your answer in graphical form.

American English

enter image description here

British English

enter image description here

A search on Google Books

Search terms are "shall" 21st century

enter image description here

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I would think most speakers would use the contractions "I'll" or "we'll or "you'll" or "they'll", in most conversations. And if you asked them whether they were contracting 'shall' or 'will' and asked for a RAPID response. . .I doubt you'd get one. If my surmise proved correct, the ambivalence would suggest "shall" is on the cusp, but not archaic.

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I don't think Gandalf's

YOU SHALL NOT PASS!

would have sounded quite so authoritative any other way.

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  • Do NOT pass go. Do not collect £200... sounds pretty authoritative to me. He could have easily said "You will not pass" and the meaning would not have changed. J.R.R. Tolkien (British) also wrote LOTR in the 1950s... Would an American modern-day hero say those same words?
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 7, 2016 at 12:02
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    @Mari-LouA First off, Gandalf didn’t use shall there in the book. But quite honestly, the shall would make sense there, at least to me, because for me shall carries a strong sense of command, or of something inevitable. Think of the KJV Ten Commandments with all their thou shalt not commands, for example.
    – tchrist
    May 7, 2016 at 13:42
  • @tchrist KJV was written in the late 15th century.... so would a modern-day American hero ever say: "You shall not get away with it!" ;) I don't think so.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 7, 2016 at 15:52

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