A common translation of the Latin hortative memento mori is "Remember thou shalt die."

I am not interested in a discussion of the Latin, nor of what the expression actually means in English. I am more interested in why English speakers chose the formulation "Remember thou shalt die" over "Remember thou wilt die," considering the implications of "shall" and "will" in English.

This thoroughly correct answer to a similar question definitely implies that "will" would be the right choice. --And yet Google has almost three thousand results for "Remember thou shalt die" (in quotes), and a mere two for "Remember thou wilt die."

Can anyone explain why this is? And: Which form is correct?

Related: The use of "will" in assumptions


N.B.: Mentions of "will" in this question refer to the future auxiliary, not to the verb "to will." Separately: I am not interested in answers which assert that "shall" and "will" are practically interchangeable these days.

  • 5
    The particular English speakers who composed that line were speakers of Early Modern English, circa 1600; and they were churchmen who were familiar with earlier versions of English and with biblical scholarship in many languages. They chose a construction that was archaic at the time, as they did for many sentences in the KJV; in their opinion (ratified by time), archaic constructions worked better in religious texts. As for the "traditional" implications of shall and will, that's a zombie rule; no English speaker ever talked that way, unless badgered by a schoolteacher. May 12, 2016 at 14:22
  • Could it be that the use of "shall" is an effort to recreate, using a calque from German, a subjunctive/jussive undertone in the Latin? --If so, this is extremely subtle.
    – SAH
    May 12, 2016 at 14:23
  • @johnLawler Are you sure this is why "shall" is used in the KJV? I am inclined to doubt it. Forms of "will" are found just as often as "shall," the distinction being that "will" is chosen when it matches the tense/mood of the original. Or so I understand.
    – SAH
    May 12, 2016 at 14:27
  • @JohnLawler Also, re: your last sentence--Especially in writing, I indeed make an effort to use "shall" as the future auxiliary for the first person. The zombie shall not die!
    – SAH
    May 12, 2016 at 14:30
  • And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die! Holy Sonnet X by John Donne - rjgeib.com/thoughts/proud/index.html
    – user66974
    May 12, 2016 at 14:36

1 Answer 1


In Shakespeare, shall and will were not used according to the "traditional rule in Standard British English" described in your link. You can see from this Ngram that there was a big change in the rules for shall and will between 1600 and 1700, at least for first person. Since the comments say this line was composed around 1600, the grammar would presumably be that of Shakespeare.

As far as I can tell from looking at examples in Shakespeare, for people he used will to indicate volition on the part of the actor, and shall to indicate lack of volition. Thus, thou shalt die means you are dying without necessarily wanting to.

EDIT: I have found a reference for this usage. From The Cambridge History of the English Language:

It has been suggested (e.g. (Jespersen MEG IV 18.1; Strang 1970: 206) that the divided use of the two auxiliaries to indicate future time might go back to the model set by the Wycliffite Bible translation, which used shall for unmarked and will for volitionally marked future. This practice would have been copied by the schools in their translation exercises. This theory certainly gives a much simplified picture of the development; yet it seems that will developed its pure (predictive) future use later than shall, in colloquial speech, as a `change from below'.

The peculiar pattern of distribution in which shall is the future auxiliary used with the first-person subject while will is used in the second and third persons can be first traced in Early Modern English. The grammarian Mason first states this rule in 1622, and Wallis in 1635 (Visser §1433) but the tendency can be traced in texts as early as the 16th century.

  • Wikipedia kind of mentions non-volitional "shall" in the second and third persons: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – herisson
    May 12, 2016 at 14:44
  • 3
    The Pragmatics of Modals in Shakespeare. books.google.it/…
    – user66974
    May 12, 2016 at 14:49
  • 1
    This is correct. The two words come from Old English willan 'to wish' and sculan 'to owe, be obliged'.
    – Anonym
    May 12, 2016 at 15:41
  • I may agree about Shakespeare, but the use of shall/will in my sentence is not the same as its use in the KJV: The KJV uses shall/will ~according to the current conventions. (Indeed, it may have invented these.)
    – SAH
    May 13, 2016 at 3:56
  • @Anonym Also, "to will" (Old English "willian") is being conflated in this discussion with "will" (Old English "willan"), the future auxiliary. These are not the same verb--although, as noted, they may share some aspects of meaning.
    – SAH
    May 13, 2016 at 3:57

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