A striking grammatical difference between BE and AE is the various uses of auxiliary verbs (now, modal verbs) of will and shall. When I was a high school boy studying English without any chance of speaking English, we were taught in the English grammar class a special use of shall, used particularly in the second and third persons ‘to represent the will of the speaker’ rather than that of the subject as in ‘You shall have the money tomorrow’ often paraphrased into ‘I will give you the money.’ Some more examples are found in Collins Grammar on the web:

  • The president shall hold office for five years.
  • Member states shall decide the conditions for granting access to the labour market for the applicant.

But I am not speaking about this use usually seen in regulations or legal documents, but sentences to imply a command, promise or threat made by the speaker. Some examples are cited in Wikipedia:

  • You shall regret it before long. (speaker's threat)
  • You shall not pass! (speaker's command)
  • You shall go to the ball. (speaker's promise)

And another is also given in Leech’s Grammar (1987).

  • Good dog, you shall have a bone when we get home.

These four examples suggest that this is in actual use even today. But, from my own long experience of studying English, I have assumed that around 1970 in Great Britain, this special use of shall was already out-of-date or old-fashioned in daily conversation or informal writings. Can I have some guidance about my assumption, or some information or data on this special use of shall?

  • One use of "shall" that is still in use is found in interrogatives, such as "Shall I close the window?" / "Shall I pick you up at 6?" In these examples, "shall" could hardly be replaced with "will".
    – BillJ
    Apr 5, 2021 at 6:31
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    I (a native speaker of English) was also taught in American grammar school 70 years or so ago the exact same nonsense about when shall was to be used instead of will in "the future tense". Total bullshit, of course. Shall has dropped out of American English entirely, except for two first-person question constructions, Shall I VP? and Shall we VP?. And since there's no "future tense" in English, the "rule" just crumbles into dust, which we shove embarrassedly under the rug. The "actual use" you mention is entirely in fixed phrases; those are coffins, not uses. Apr 5, 2021 at 15:40
  • @JohnLawler: I don't think this distinction between shall and will was ever current in America. It developed in England after the first colonists came over. But something similar to it can be seen in 19th- and maybe even early 20th-century English novels, so it has some faint basis in reality. Apr 5, 2021 at 16:06
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    There's a great example of these "rules" in Thomas Wood's 1910 Practical Grammar and Composition, ch 5, nos 65-67. The sad bit is the book was republished by Project Gutenberg as an ebook in 2007. Amazon still has originals, and intentionally or otherwise, lists it's genre as fiction :)
    – Phil Sweet
    Apr 6, 2021 at 9:57
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    @JohnLawler: I wouldn't be at all surprised if upper-class (and maybe middle-class) British speakers used something like this horrendously complicated set of rules in the late 19th/early 20th century – one reason being so they could distinguish themselves from lower-class speakers who couldn't be bothered with a set of rules this monstrous. Apr 8, 2021 at 21:43

2 Answers 2


If we take Google Books as an indicator, usage of the expression “you shall”, much in vogue before, has been visibly decreasing since the beginning of the 20th century, especially after the 1950s.

According to Lexico however, usage of “you shall” is not defined as “out-of-date”, but it is probably more formal, literary.

However, when it comes to expressing a strong determination to do something, the roles are reversed: will is used with the first person, and shall with the second and third. For example:

  • I will not tolerate such behaviour.
  • You shall go to the ball!

In practice, though, the two words are used more or less interchangeably, and this is now an acceptable part of standard British and American English; however, the word shall is now seldom used in any normal context in American English.

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    It's not used much in British English either. In fact when I was a state grammar school (roughly equivalent to US high school) pupil in the 60s we were taught the I shall/will, you will/shall convention but I think it came as a surprise to most of us because it was already out of normal use.
    – BoldBen
    Apr 5, 2021 at 6:27
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    In the US, used in interrogatives as first person only, singular and plural fixed formulae, for offers and invitations. Apr 5, 2021 at 15:42
  • JL is referring to interrogs such as "Shall I pick you up at 6?" and "Shall I close the window?"
    – BillJ
    Apr 6, 2021 at 9:32
  • @BillJ not sure what you mean. The OP is asking about the usage of “shall” for second person as in you shall do/go/ stay etc.
    – user 66974
    Apr 6, 2021 at 9:35
  • I was clarifying what JL meant in his comment.
    – BillJ
    Apr 6, 2021 at 10:08

Google Ngrams search term shall: eng_gb_2019,shall: eng_us_2019,should: eng_gb_2019,should: eng_us_2019 Shows broadly that the fall in frequency of the use of "shall" in written English has dropped away to 20% of what it was prior to the Second World War. The drop in frequency in BE has been pretty regular.

Interestingly, there is a similarity that can be seen in the use of "should."

The use of shall and should remains consistent in legal language, where it comes close to the meaning of "must" (but allows for exceptional circumstances.)

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