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April 23, 2000 - Grammar Lady: 'Will' vs. 'Shall' - 2002-02-01

INTRO: This week, Grammar Lady joins Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble, to try to settle an issue of longstanding confusion. Will they succeed? We shall see.

MUSIC: "Shall We Dance?"/The King and I

AA: These days, most English speakers dance around the traditional distinctions between "shall" and "will."

RS: That's because, unless you arrived here in a time machine from centuries-old southern England, chances are you wouldn't be able to master the arcane rules.

AA: But that's not to say people haven't tried.


"It might have been my grandmother's generation, people made a distinction in the use in the future between `shall' and `will.'"

AA: Grammar Lady Mary Bruder says the distinction is when you're talking about what's called the simple future -- "I shall go shopping tomorrow, that's just what I plan to do" -- versus the more emphatic: "I WILL go shopping tomorrow, don't try to stop me."

RS: But that's in the first person. When you're talking in the second or third person, according to tradition, you reverse them:

AA:So "You shall" or "they shall" becomes a command, while "you will" or "they will" just describes the simple future.

RS: But the rules are hardly simple. Maybe that's why "shall" is not used much anymore -- except in legal documents: "You shall pay your taxes on time." But, as we discussed with Grammar Lady Mary Bruder, lawyers argue about the level of obligation implied by "shall":


AA: "This is a live debate right now."

BRUDER: "Well, it may be a live debate for people who make resolutions, but among the rest of us who speak the language on an everyday basis, this is an artificial argument that needs to have been put to bed a long, long time ago."

RS: "In favor of `will.'"

BRUDER: "In favor of will, for all future tenses. And the spoken language, and the people who write on a regular basis, even in very formal language, use `will' for the future. The only common use for shall is to make suggestions: `What shall we do? Shall we go to the movies? Shall we blah blah blah. And even that is sort of the contracted `sh'll': `What sh'll we do?'"

RS: "So why have you brought to us `shall' and `will' when `shall' in this context is on its way out -- or is it to tell us that `shall' is on its way out?"

BRUDER: "Well, it's one of the questions, one of the myths of English that this is still a common distinction. The international students ask this question all the time. They think that they have to remember to use `shall' for the future sometimes and `will' at other times."

RS: "Is this because it's written in their grammar books?"

BRUDER: "Yes - well, some of the things written about English grammar in international texts are quite amazing, but this one, this actually was a feature of English, maybe in Victorian times and the rule has remained. It's sort of like ending a sentence with a preposition or splitting an infinitive, those sorts of rules."

RS: "And the `shall' and the `will' are in their textbooks and they're learning these rules, then they get mixed up because they're both future tense markers and they don't know which to use."

BRUDER: "That's right, and they are confused when they get to a classroom with a native speaker of English as a teacher, and the teacher doesn't seem to be following this rule and they're all confused."

RS: "Like, who's right anyway?"

BRUDER: "(laughs) Right."

AA: If you have access to the Internet, you can learn more about English grammar by visiting Mary Bruder's Web site: RS:Our e-mail address is Or write to us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA. Next week we answer some questions from listeners. Stay tuned! With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC:"Shall We Dance"