Article VI of North Carolina's constitution from 1971 contains a provision whose constitutionality is being discussed over at law SE.

Section 8 starts

Sec. 8. Disqualifications for office.
      The following persons shall be disqualified for office:
      First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

I stumbled over this use of shall in shall deny. In law texts shall is used in the sense of definition 3b in the Merriam-Webster entry:

—used in laws, regulations, or directives to express what is mandatory

Article VI itself provides a plethora of examples for this usage. The following is an exhaustive list of the occurrences of shall. They all stipulate conditions and a mandatory consequence.

  • Section 1: "Every person born in the United States [...]
    shall be entitled to vote [...]."
  • Section 2: "Any person who has resided in the State of North Carolina for one year [...] preceding an election, and possesses the other qualifications set out in this Article
    shall be entitled to vote [...]."
  • Section 3: "No person adjudged guilty of a felony [...]
    shall be permitted to vote.
  • Section 4: "Voters offering to vote in person
    shall present photographic identification before voting."
  • Section 5: "A contested election for any office established by Article III of this Constitution
    shall be determined by joint ballot."
  • Section 6: "Every qualified voter in North Carolina who is 21 years of age [...]
    shall be eligible for election."
  • Section 7: "Before entering upon the duties of an office, a person elected or appointed to the office
    shall take and subscribe the following oath:"
  • Section 8: "The following persons shall be disqualified for office:
          First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.
          Second, [...] any person who is not qualified to vote in an election for that office.
  • Section 9 (1): "[... N]o person who holds any office [...
    shall be eligible to hold any office in this State that is filled by election by the people."
  • Section 9 (2): "The provisions of this Section shall not prohibit any officer of the military forces of the State from holding concurrently another office."
  • Section 10: "[...] all officers in this State [...] shall hold their positions until other appointments are made [...]."

The use of shall in section 8, sentence 2 is peculiar and stands out against all other sections, and surely most laws in general, because it uses shall to specify the condition of the legal consequence.

This use of shall seems out of place. It surely cannot "express a command". The other uses suggested by Merriam-Webster are either a variant of expectation or statement about the future, expressing determination or, archaic, must or want.

The only conceivable meaning is to express plain or likely "futurity". But it seems odd to define a condition as a futurity; as is evident from the quotes, the law is worded from a point in time when the legal situation occurs: Can I be elected? Not if you cannot vote (present tense). Yes, if you are born in the U.S. This is a good example how out of place "shall" is. Imagine section 1 read "Every person that shall be born in the United States [...] shall be entitled to vote." No matter from which reference point this is considered a future, this would seem wrong:

  • If the reference point in time is the enactment of the constitution it is a legal mistake because even people born in the past surely shall be electable.
  • If the reference point is the election it's a mistake and a blooper: Nobody born after the election can vote; they aren't here yet. The same is true for somebody who "shall" deny the existence of the "Almighty God": What is this, Minority Report?

Is this usage indeed wrong?

  • 1
    It's a very old-fashioned usage, and confusing when used alongside more normal usages. 'No person who shall¹ deny the being of Almighty God shall² be eligible for office.' = 'No person who denies the existence of {one assumes a stipulative definition exists for what is meant by 'Almighty God' here} may stand for office.' Dec 21, 2021 at 15:21
  • Does this answer your question? Using "shall" in Contracted Conditionals (john lee's answer: ' Webster's New World College Dictionary says: shall auxiliary verb ... used in formal conditional subordinate clauses' Dec 21, 2021 at 15:31
  • 1
    tchrist listed over 250 different 'conditional sentences' so there's a reasonable chance that this type is in his list. 'Type 0 / 1 / 2/ 3' are an EAL dumbing-down eschewed on ELU. // ELU carefully avoids legalese, political jargon, most Christian jargon. Dec 22, 2021 at 15:32
  • 1
    I've voted to reopen this question, because it's not clear that this is a contracted conditional. The structure of this sentence is not analogous to the structure of the sentences in the supposed duplicate question.
    – phoog
    Dec 22, 2021 at 21:24
  • 2
    It's possibly influenced by Biblical language, specifically the Ten Commandments which say a lot about blasphemy and denying God, and use language often rendered (especially in older versions) as "thou shalt not...". So it has the sense of "anyone who breaks the Ten Commandments will be punished..."
    – Stuart F
    Dec 23, 2021 at 8:41

2 Answers 2


The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

This use of “shall” is explained in the OED as

  1. In ... relative ... clauses denoting a future contingency, the future auxiliary is shall for all persons alike. (Where no ambiguity results, however, the present tense is commonly used for the future, and the perfect for the future-perfect; the use of shall, when not required for clearness, is apt to sound pedantic)

b. In relative clauses (where the antecedent denotes an as yet undetermined person or thing).

1794 A. Radcliffe Myst. of Udolpho IV. v. 86 I will lay all the spirits, that shall attack me, in the red sea.

1811 R. Southey Let. to G. C. Bedford 16 Feb. The minister who shall first become a believer in that book..will obtain a higher reputation than ever statesman did before him.

1874 R. Congreve Ess. 417 We extend our sympathies..to the unborn generations, which.. shall follow us on this earth.

(The 1811 quote is particularly apt as an example.)

  • Ah, these are relevant dictionary entries. Is the b. entry a subsection of 10? Is the person undetermined because the denial will be a "future contingency"? Then it's still funny that the section 8 provision only covers future denials. Dec 23, 2021 at 0:26
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica Is the b. entry a subsection of 10? Yes. Is the person undetermined because the denial will be a "future contingency"? Yes. "undetermined" = not defined" -- "the person undetermined" = "anyone, from this point onwards, who..."
    – Greybeard
    Dec 23, 2021 at 15:01
  • "This point", presumably, being the enactment of the current constitution, in 1971. (Which is again an anomaly because the other grammatical times are relative to the election, as in "born": Not "born when this article was enacted!") So as I said, if I make myself clear in a widely publicized pamphlet or even in an election campaign in 1970 I'm still eligible in 1972, provided I keep silent after 1971? Presumably that's not what they meant. What does "deny" then mean? "We know what you are thinking"? Dec 23, 2021 at 15:25

With the disclaimer that "I am not a lawyer": My perception is that it's not about future so much as hypothetical.* Your Merriam-Webster quote already indicates that this legal use is a specialized use; everyday language might render most of the proscriptive shalls as must or similar. This sentence might be rendered something like "... any person who should deny..." (not in the proscriptive sense of should, but the hypothetical, meaning 1 in this M-W entry; that is, "any person who should happen to deny." In fact, M-W describes should as "the past tense of shall." Etymonline elaborates a bit more; the proscriptive sense of "I really should do my laundry" is an evolutionary artifact linking it to all these proscriptive shalls in the legal context.

* If we want to debate the theory that it's a future tense: As noted, this is not Minority Report, and the articles quoted operate in a kind of continuous theoretical "present." It's understood that they are in effect for perpetuity unless altered; it doesn't need to specify "every person who is or will be born in...." Many of the articles make use of past tense or participles to discuss events situated in the theoretical past relative to the application of the law in the theoretical present: "Any person adjudged guilty...." But the qualifications for office are not concerned with forecasting what the person "will" do after taking office, nor is this phrase at least concerned with what they've done in the past (apparently, anyone who has denied "the being of Almighty God" but recanted is fair game).

  • 1
    This hypothetical use is still funny because most conditions are hypothetical. So instead of 9(1) "No person who holds any office shall be eligible" they could as well have written "No person who shall hold any office shall be eligible"; but nowhere did they. Dec 21, 2021 at 13:52
  • 1
    True. I've never drafted any legislation, but seems to me they could have there if they wanted to. (I wonder, also, about the comparative dates of these articles?) Dec 21, 2021 at 14:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.