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When should I use “shall” versus “will”?

I have learnt in school we should use shall with I, you and we. But I often see people saying I will, you will or we will. Is this correct?


From 'The Cambridge Guide to English Usage':

Will is now the standard choice for expressing future plans and expectations, everywhere in the world. Shall is stylistically marked with volitional meaning in legal and regulatory statements, and expresses politeness in first person questions.

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    That's a prescriptive source. Do you actually conform to that usage in your dialect? – Mitch Apr 3 '12 at 17:15

From Fowler's Modern English Usage:

In the first person 'shall has, from the early ME period, been the normal auxiliary for expressing mere futurity without any adventitious notion'.

It then carries on for two full pages of fine print.

The short version is that if the subject is "I" or "we", and the sentence is not a question, then "shall" has traditionally been correct, and "will" has traditionally expressed a level of determination, or a promise. Today though, the two are interchangeable. I tend to use "shall" (note that I am neither British nor American); many people tend to use "will".

If the subject is NOT "I" or "we", then the future tense has "will". In this case, "shall" means something more like "must" - that is, the Old Testament sentence "you shall not kill" is a commandment, not a prediction of the future.

If the subject is "I" or "we", and the sentence is a question, then "shall" is an offer or a suggestion ("shall we dance?", "shall I pay for dinner?"); but "will" is asking what is going to happen.

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  • Fowler is wrong in at least one point here. It certainly seems true that during some period of time that includes the 19th century, shall was used as the normal auxiliary for first person in RP and probably some other English dialects. But I very much doubt that it's been used this way generally in English since early ME. In particular, I don't believe Shakespeare uses it like this. Searching an online Shakespeare, I find that "I shall" is used 375 times, and "I will" 1364. If "I shall" had been the normal auxiliary, wouldn't you expect it to be the other way around? – Peter Shor Apr 3 '12 at 11:10
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    Interesting point. It's certainly true that Fowler is conservative in many respects. Also, I'm not sure if the OP is too interested in what Shakespeare wrote. The OP asked whether "I will" and "we will" are correct, and the answer to this is a resounding yes. But this doesn't imply that "I shall" and "we shall" are incorrect; they are certainly both still used today, and are completely interchangeable with "I will" and "we will". – user16269 Apr 3 '12 at 11:20
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    There's a pernicious subtext in Fowler which should be stamped out. What he is saying implicitly is: this is the way things have been done since time immemorial, and you modern idiots are complicit in the degeneration of the English language. Whereas, in reality, Shakespeare's usage (not the same as modern usage) evolved into Fowler's usage, and Fowler's usage evolved into modern usage, and none of them is inherently any better than the others. – Peter Shor Apr 3 '12 at 13:02

In modern (non-legal) American English, the modal auxiliary shall is not used, except in two idiomatic constructions, both first person, both questions, and both involving invitations and offers:

Plural Shall we? can occur alone as a tag for an invitation starting with Let's:

  • Let's take a walk around the lake, shall we?

and can also start a question signalling a request for cooperation and agreement:

  • Shall we consider the matter closed, then?

Singular Shall I? occurs in similar situations, as a tag for an offer starting with Let me (though not with Let's, which is plural).

  • Lemme just see what I can do, shall I?

or starting off a question that conveys an offer:

  • Shall I fix the door so it doesn't squeak?

Other than those constructions, any use of shall by a native speaker of American English is being read aloud (or is being recited from memory) from an archaic formal, written source (e.g, Congress shall make no law ..., Thou shalt not ...).

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  • For AmE, I would go even further, that these idioms are not used at all. Starting a question one would use 'Should...' instead, and the tags would just not be used. – Mitch Apr 3 '12 at 17:19
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    Should is certainly more common; but shall maintains this last link, at least in the speech of my generation (b. 1942). – John Lawler Apr 3 '12 at 17:44

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