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Google Books statistics indicate that the use of the expression "if you should" and especially of the expression "if you shall" per unit of text length dramatically and steadily declined since the 1700s, as you can see in this graph. As compared to the 1700s, the former expression is nowadays used about 7 times less frequently, and the latter expression - about 50 times less frequently.

Why did this happen?

My question is not meant to be broad or a request for subjective opinions. Instead, I mean to ask whether there are any obvious objective factors that explain or could explain such a decline, such as a documented change in the meaning or connotation. I am not a native speaker and do see any possible factors at all, so I hope that native speakers can shed some light.

My understanding is that the expression "if you shall/should" roughly means "if you have/had a duty or obligation to," and I am puzzled as to why the expression became so much less used to express the idea. I see nothing wrong or weird in saying, "I will help you find another apartment and relocate to it if you shall vacate your current landlord's property by the end of this month."

In an attempt to find the answer, I looked at statistics for the expressions "you should" and "you shall" (i.e., without "if"). I found that although the use of the latter expression considerably declined since the 1700s (by a factor of 10), the use of the former one did not decline at all: Graph. Thus, the statistics of "you shall/should" cannot explain the magnitude of the decline of the use of "if you shall/should." And I even do not see why the expression "you shall" became less frequently used than before.

I am puzzled and humbly hope to read enlightening responses by native speakers.


Update: As pointed out by JK2 in an answer below, the statistics are different if we replace "if" by "If" (i.e., if we make the first letter capital):

  • The use of "If you should" (with the capital letter I in "If") is nowadays about 4 times less frequent per unit of text length as compared to the middle of the 1800s.

  • The use of "If you shall" (with the capital letter I in "If") is nowadays about 20 times less frequent per unit of text length than in the 1700s and 1800s.

Thus, the decline for these phrases with the capital letter I is less dramatic than for the same phrases with the small letter i, but is still very considerable.

  • Consider that in the 1700s very few novels were being published, and the closest thing to a "magazine" was Poor Richard's Almanac. Most writing from the era that has survived long enough to be scanned into Google Books was stodgy formal stuff. – Hot Licks Jun 22 at 21:16
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    I had a theory that they were replaced by if you would, but adding that term to the graph didn't result in any support for the theory . . . (I only found out that it's almost always been the more common of the three.) – Jason Bassford Jun 22 at 21:23
  • All things subjunctive have declined. These if conditionals take a subjunctive construction, and we just have rearranged things to not use them as much anymore. Plus shall has narrowed in terms of its meaning and usage. "If you shall be so kind as to pass me the marmalade" just isn't what we say anymore. (4 hits for this construction on Google since 2010, plus my mom, who doesn't blog.) – Phil Sweet Jun 22 at 21:23
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    Shall is not used in American English except in the fixed expressions Shall I VP (an offer by the speaker to do VP -- Shall I open the window?) and Shall we VP (an invitation to do VP with the addressee -- Shall we dance?). Should is common, but its usage is quite variable. – John Lawler Jun 22 at 23:38
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    Shall is common in law and executive orders, e.g. “Within 180 days of the date of this memorandum, the Secretary shall report to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy recording DOI’s progress in identifying the assets that can be used to support rural broadband deployment and adoption.” – Xanne Jun 23 at 4:22
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In the transition into and out of Early Modern English, so really a very long time ago, people would write if you shall with the modal shall followed by some verb in its plain form to convey the same sense where today we would omit the modal altogether. The following all mean essentially the same thing:

  1. If you shall see him, you shall lend him a thousand pounds.
  2. If you should see him, you shall lend him a thousand pounds.
    Should you see him, you shall lend him a thousand pounds. (same but with inversion)
  3. If you happen to see him, you must lend him a thousand pounds.
  4. If you see him, lend him a thousand pounds.

Number 1 is completely obsolete, while number 2 is quite stuffy and formal but hardly obsolete. Even number 3 is a bit wordy. Number 4 is the ordinary way to express that today.

On pages 313 and 314 of The History of Scotland: During the Reigns of Queen Mary and of King James VI. Until His Accession to the Crown of England: with a Review of the Scottish History Previous to that Period; and an Appendix Containing Original Papers, Volume 3, we find two examples of this construction in a letter from Queen Mary dated the Twelfth of September of the year 1566. (Because that year is from before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, it would, I believe, be the Twenty-Third of that same month according to our current way of reckoning such things.)

Here is the first, from page 313:

page 313 of said tome

The salient sentence is this one: (Yes, it's really just one sentence!)

If you shall certainly understand that the Earl of Murray hath such want of money, as the impresting to him of one thousand pounds might stand him in stead for the help to defend himself, you shall presently let him secretly to understand, that you will, as of yourself, let him have so much, and so we will that you let him have, in the most secret sort that you can, when the said sum shall come to you, or if you can, by any good means advance him some part therefore beforehand.

Today we might start that saying: If you come to understand with certainty that...

The second example occurs in this sentence from the next page:

page 314 example

Where that sentence is:

But now, considering we take it, that they are pursued, notwithstanding their humble submission and offer to be ordered and tied by law and justice, which being refused to them, they are retired to Dumfrese, a place near our west marches, as it seemeth there to defend themselves, and adding thereunto the good intention that presently the French King pretendeth, by sending one of his to join with some one of ours, and jointly to treat with that Queen, and to induce her to forbear this manner of violent and rigorous proceeding against her subjects, for which purpose the French ambassador here with us has lately written to that Queen, whereof answer is daily looked for; to the intent in the mean time the said lords should not be oppressed and ruined for lack of some help to defend them, we are content and do authorize, if you shall see it necessary for their defence, to let them (as of your adventure, and without notifying that you have any direction therein from us) to have the number of 300 soldiers, to be taken, either in bands, or to be drawn out of all your bands, as you shall see cause.

In other words, If you see it as something that’s necessary for their defence, we authorize you to...

Again, this if you shall style of writing conditionals passed out of common use for what we today use just the plain present tense for without a modal, or on rare occasion via if you should (happen to) ....

I hope it is clear that we no longer write the way they did back then. :)

  • One sentence? Goddam you smartphone, twitter, and instagram. – Mitch Jun 23 at 18:10
  • Thanks a lot for such a detailed answer. Your conclusion is this: "we no longer write the way they did back then." And I am curious as to WHY you no longer write the way you did back then :) What caused the change? :) – Mitsuko Jun 25 at 16:48
  • My own wild guess was this: As "shall" essentially expresses a duty or obligation, people used to often say "shall" in the past to emphasize that they did things because they were obliged or had a duty. People simply used to think in terms of duties or obligations. Nowadays the mentality seems to have changed, and people seem to be more positive and to think in terms of wishes and desires rather than duties and responsibilities. The decline of "you shall" as well as "if you shall/should" seems to reflect this shift. But this is just my wild guess. – Mitsuko Jun 25 at 16:55
  • @Mitsuko I don't think it's the deontic sense of the modals we're looking at here, but rather the epistemic sense. That means obligation is not involved, only probability. You should therefore look for inverted conditionals case insensitively: shall you, should you, shouldst thou. Notice how now the middle one is perfectly commonplace. Add an infinitive like have or be for specific scenarios. – tchrist Jun 25 at 17:25
  • @Mitsuko Consider this graph. – tchrist Jun 25 at 17:57
0

I suspect that the "dramatic decline" may be due to your failing to capitalize "if" in the Ngram, because "if" can be an interrogative marker (meaning whether) as well as a conditional marker, whereas "If" can only be the latter.

The decline of "If you shall" is not as dramatic as that of "if you shall" as shown in this Ngram. This is also the case with "If/if you should" as shown in this Ngram.

In other words, searching "if" instead of "If" is basically conflating the two different constructions, thereby making the search results too complicated to analyze.

  • According to this Ngram chart the difference is indeed dramatic books.google.com/ngrams/… "If you shall" (uppercase/green) is far lower than its lowercase counterpart. – Mari-Lou A Jun 23 at 9:37
  • All the following "if you shall" vs. "if I shall" and "if you should" vs "if I should*" are seemingly on the decrease books.google.com/ngrams/… – Mari-Lou A Jun 23 at 9:41
  • @Mari-LouA I'm not sure what you're trying to say, but "I shall" is not to be compared with "you shall" because the former is still in use in BE whereas the latter is not either in BE or AE. – JK2 Jun 23 at 11:48
  • My point being is the Ngram link in my comment shows the phrase "If I shall" is also in decline, if we are to take its word. – Mari-Lou A Jun 23 at 11:54
  • @Mari-LouA Honestly, I don't understand the "case insensitive" option of the Ngram. I think my Ngram is clear enough to prove my point, i.e., "if you shall" is declining, but not as dramatically as the OP erroneously makes it out to be declining. – JK2 Jun 23 at 12:12

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