The Joy of Shall: Guest Post by the E-Book Therapist

Linguist extraordinaire The E-Book Therapist wrote a wonderful article on the uses of shall and should. I thought I'd share.   

The Joy of Shall

Shall is a word that is rapidly falling into disuse, particularly in North America, as is the corresponding past and conditional use of should. This is a tragedy. Although the rules governing proper usage of shall/will and should/would may seem a bit complicated to those of us not used to hearing it in everyday speech, they are straightforward, sensible and offer a wonderful subtlety of meaning that is lost when the only tools in our arsenal are will/would. So, with some prompting from Michelle Franklin, I’ve decided to bring back shall.
I wanted to do this question full justice, so I turned to my usage guides. The first one I checked was a quite recent Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, and its brief mention of shall and will was pretty descriptivist and toothless. “Canadians don’t follow the rules, what are ya gonna do?” it seemed to say, throwing up its hands in defeat. This is clearly not pedantic enough for my purposes.

Lucky for all of you, my next stop was much more fruitful. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1927 edition – what, you don’t have one of these?) devotes nearly four full pages to shall & will, should & would. Fowler says,

…there is an inclination, among those who are not to the manner born, to question the existence, besides denying the need, of distinctions between sh. & w. The distinctions are elaborate; they are fully set forth in the OED; & no formal grammar or dictionary can be held to have done its duty if it has not laid down the necessary rules.

Ahh, that’s better. When indulging your inner pedant, you clearly cannot be too prescriptive.
So what are the necessary rules? Well, the most basic one, the one my mother taught me that will govern the majority of instances, is, as Fowler states, “Plain future or conditional statements and questions in the first person should have shall, should.” In other words:
  • I shall go.
  • You will go.
  • He/she will go.
  • We shall go.
  • You will go.
  • They will go.
  • I should go if…
  • You would go if…
  • He/she would go if…
  • We should go if…
  • You would go if…
  • They would go if…
NB: ‘ll stands for both shall and will (I’ll, you’ll, we’ll) but ‘d stands only for would, not should. Shall not is contracted to shan’t.

Simple enough so far, right? Does this mean you can never use “will” or “would” with the first person? Actually, no. However, the meaning changes from a simple future (or conditional) statement to an idea of intention, volition, or choice. Keep this in mind the next time you say something like “I will go to the mall tomorrow.” Linguistically, this is the equivalent of jumping up on a table, beating a hand against your heart and announcing that, through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, “I WILL GO TO THE MALL!!!” (Well, okay, perhaps not quite that strong, but you get the idea.) On the other hand, using shall with the second and third persons expresses a strong assertion or command rather than a wish. “Thou shalt not steal” is perhaps the best-known example. You can use shall in a second-person question, though, when expecting a first-person reply using “shall”, especially in a case where using “will” would make it seem like a request: “Shall you go to France?” “I shall.” Compare: “Will you go to France (for me)?” “Well, uh, that’s a bit out of my way…”

Some uses of “should” seem a little more complicated, but they really aren’t. Leaving aside entirely the sense of “should” as “ought to” for the moment, when exactly do we use should?

1. In reported speech, especially with the reported element in the first person (“I said I should go to the mall tomorrow”. Easy peasy. Let’s move to the next non-ought meaning.
2. In first person conditional statements with the verbs like, prefer, care, be glad, be inclined etc. If you’re a Rocky Horror Picture Show fan (as I am), you might realize that the Criminologist would more properly say “I should like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.”
3. This one, I should like (oho!) to quote the OED on verbatim: “Forming a conditional protasis or indefinite clause (if you should see him; should they arrive, tell them where to go).” What is a protasis, you ask? (I had to look it up, too.) It’s “the clause expressing the condition in a conditional sentence”. So usually the clause starting with “if”. The critical thing to remember for this use is that it’s irrespective of person: I, you, he, they, it’s all the same. Think of that scene at the end of Labyrinth when Sir Didymus and Hoggle start saying “Should you need us…” This does sound a bit old-fashioned. Some of us like that sort of thing. If it’s not your bag, these sentences are easily rejigged to the more modern-sounding “if you see him; if they arrive; if you need us”. Should you do that, you’re clearly not a Labyrinth fan.
4. This is probably the fiddliest but it’s also definitely my favourite. From Fowler:

That-clauses after intend or intention, desire, demand, be anxious, &c. have shall & should for all persons. Among the &c. are not included hope, anticipate & the like; but the drawing of the line is not easy; roughly, shall & should are used when the word on which the that-clause depends expresses an influence that affects the result, as a demand does, but a hope or a fear does not; a serviceable illustration is expect; mistresses expect (i.e. demand) that their maids shall wear caps; but we expect (i.e. are of the opinion) that tomorrow will be fine. 

I’m not sure if I like this so much simply because of Fowler’s example (maids wearing caps! Tee-hee!) and I haven’t come across it in the OED or the other usage guide I consulted (a 1994 edition of Partridge’s Usage and Abusage which has been updated and edited such that I’m not sure how much of the original discussions of shall/will and would/should remain). So if it freaks you out too much, I don’t imagine there will be too much harm in ignoring it. No doubt observing the distinction will win you +5 pedant points if you run in those kinds of circles. (Hello, new friend! Let’s hang out sometime!)

I hope this has opened your eyes to the joy of shall. One of the great things about the English language is its richness, the ability to confer shades of meaning by choosing one word over another. When words like shall fall out of common usage, we lose the subtle differences we can express by choosing them, and their alternatives lose their own subtleties as well.