According to the following Google Ngram, in the U.K. the modals should, shall, and must were virtually missing from English writing during the 18th Century (I've added will for a comparison modal which was unaffected).

I have never seen this mentioned anywhere, and I couldn't find it in a brief web search. What happened? Was this a real phenomenon, or could this somehow be an artifact of Google Ngrams? Were these modals absent from speech, or just formal writing? More interestingly, how did they get reintroduced? A brief search shows that Shakespeare definitely used these words quite frequently.

Ngram graph showing usage of "should", "shall", "must" and "will" since 1650

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    What a fascinating question! Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 20:22
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    @PeterShor: NGram is a fine tool, but what about a more mechanistic interpretation or the data... It seems to me that there is continuous decline the use of all these words after 1825 which is an absurd. What has replaced their use? What has come up in lieu of "will" or "shall"? Do people use the future tense less and less? (Maybe it suggests a manifestation of massive pessimism... ) Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 21:00
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    See these two brilliant articles from 2006 that exploit this "feature" of Google Book Search and Google Ngrams: The Rules for Long S and The Long and the Short of the Letter S. Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 4:56
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    @PantelisSopasakis All modals have been declining, perhaps more markedly in print because of increasing colloquialization. Will/shall have been partially supplanted by be going to and by contractions with 'll, must by have to, should/ought to by be supposed to. Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 0:02

3 Answers 3


This was a problem with Google's optical character recognition (OCR) mistaking the long s (ſ) as an f.

However, Google has since improved their OCR:

When we generated the original Ngram Viewer corpora in 2009, our OCR wasn't as good as it is today. This was especially obvious in pre-19th century English, where the elongated medial-s (ſ) was often interpreted as an f, so best was often read as beft. Here's evidence of the improvements we've made since then, using the corpus operator to compare the 2009 and 2012 versions:

Chart showing many pre-1820 beft results in the 2009 corpus, but hardly any in the 2012 corpus

Here's the original chart from the question, with the 2009 corpus:

Strange dips

Here's a chart with the same words but with the new 2012 corpus. This is much smoother and no longer has the large dip:

a much smoother chart

Here's the chart from the other answer, with the 2009 corpus:

Strange dips

And here it is with the new 2012 corpus. This shows hardly any muft or fhall type words:

hardly any muft type words


Interesting! I suspected the reason was that the character s used to be written somewhat like the present-day f. (It would look like s only when it was the last character of a word.) I looked at some of the OCRed documents that Google Ngrams links to. That only strengthened my suspicion.

Look at this plot (also below). I have plotted for "should,shall,must,will,fhould,fhall,muft".

We had some very important literary works between the late 1500s and the early 1600s. I guess these have been re-published with the old-fashioned s replaced, and therefore, OCR worked better.

added fhall,fhould,muft, and extended the range

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    It looks like this is right! ngrams.googlelabs.com/… shows that the fall of should is accompanied by an equal rise in fhould, etc.
    – Jeremy
    Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 15:03
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    @Prof. Shor: One important (to me) consequence is that it shows why we can't rely on (just) Google NGrams to settle questions about early Modern English.
    – prash
    Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 17:16
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    Great answer to a great question. The version of "s" that looks like "f" is called "long s" and Google's OCR definitely doesn't detect them at all. I tried with ſhould,ſhall,muſt and got zero. Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 20:30
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    @prash can you include the plot in your answer? that way both images can be compared from this single Q&A. Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 20:33
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    @DuckMaestro: I now figured out how it's done!
    – prash
    Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 20:41

Though I know the question has been answered by showing changes in the Google OCR, I thought it would be helpful to see actual references to the word shall as found by human researchers in 18th century writing, instead of relying on the OCR compilation.

Before seeing the answer to this question I started researching instances of shall as given in the Oxford English Dictionary Online. In the samples I cite, I have left out the definitions to which each pertains because there are many long, precise variants, and because the querent did not ask for definitions.

Below are a few samples of the quotations from the 18th century that I found, but this is by no means an exhaustive survey of the entire OED entry for shall. I found these examples under shall as a verb. I stopped looking after entry #8 subsection b. because there were far too many. These only reflect usage in the 18th century under the first few sections covering the use of shall "followed by an infinitive (without to)." These OED examples include their date and source exactly as presented, but without the links provided in the OED.

1744 in Atkyns Chanc. Cases (1782) III. 166 The words shall and may in general acts of parliament, or in private constitutions, are to be construed imperatively, they must remove them.

1781 R. B. Sheridan Trip to Scarborough v. ii. (ad fin.), Well, 'fore George, you shan't say I do things by halves. 1719 in T. D'Urfey Wit & Mirth V. 113 Shall you and I Lady, Among the Grass lye down

1719 in T. D'Urfey Wit & Mirth V. 113 Shall you and I Lady, Among the Grass lye down a.

1780 R. B. Sheridan School for Scandal ii. iii. 24 What!..shall I forget..when I was at his years myself.

1741 S. Richardson Pamela III. xvii. 89 A pretty thing, truly! Here, I a poor helpless Girl, raised from Poverty and Distress,..shall put on Lady-Airs to a Gentlewoman born.

1737 Pope Epist. of Horace i. i. 97 And say, to which shall our applause belong, This new Court jargon, or the good old song?

1756 M. Calderwood Lett. & Jrnls. (1884) vi. 166, I beg to know..who I shall inform him inquired so kindly after him.

1780 R. B. Sheridan School for Scandal iii. i. 32 Let our future contest be, who shall be most obliging.

1746 P. Francis tr. Horace in P. Francis & W. Dunkin tr. Horace Epistles ii. i. 26 No Prince so great, so wise, Hath ever risen, or shall ever rise.

1781 R. B. Sheridan Trip to Scarborough ii. i, So—carry him off!.. We shall have him into a fever by-and-by.

1781 Johnson in Boswell Life Johnson (1904) II. 402 You cannot suppose that we shall rise with a diseased body.

1779 Mirror No. 25, I..shall let my wife and daughters know, that I will be master of my own house.

Since these are only a small sample of the quotes found in the 18th century writing, the word must have been used much more often than was offered in the OED because they usually only quote significant examples. The dates of the samples span the century, and show no drop or change in frequency of use.

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