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Notes on English usage - will and shall

Updated on April 21, 2015

Get it right!

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This is a tricky one! When do you use "will" and when do you use "shall"?

The rule is that, in the first person (i.e. "I" or "we"), you use "shall" when you are talking about a future action, as in "I shall be catching the bus at 4.30″; but "will" when expressing an intention to do something in the future, as in "I will come to visit, I really will!"

To make matters just that little bit more interesting, the rule is exactly the opposite with the second ("you") and third ("he, she, it, they") persons. So that "you shall catch the bus" is an order, not a prediction, and "he will visit you next week" is simply a statement of a future action.

How on earth do you remember which is which? Here is a little story (entirely made up I am sure) that might help:

Some years ago a Frenchman came to England on holiday. While swimming off the beach at Bournemouth he got into difficulties and waved frantically for help. However, nobody noticed him, or just thought that he was waving to a friend, and he got more and more desperate. Finally he shouted out "I will drown, I will drown, nobody shall save me!" The people who heard him, who had all been to very good schools and spoke in perfectly grammatical English, were convinced by this that he was committing suicide and allowed him to carry on drowning!

What he should have shouted was "I shall drown, I shall drown, nobody will save me", which might have saved his life!

Maybe!

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    • profile image

      coochie man 

      7 years ago

      Man this rocks!

    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 

      7 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      The story is a good way to remember. Thanks!

    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      8 years ago from UK

      Claudio, No - the difference has nothing to do with imminence of an event, as it is a distinction between intention and forecasting, as explained above. At least, that is how it applies in British English.

    • profile image

      claudio 

      8 years ago

      so shall indicates a closer future than will?

    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      9 years ago from UK

      Ah well, being British I stick to the rules of British English! I was not aware that Americans have a different rule here, or no rule at all. However, it is a trend of American English to overlook distinctions of usage that could allow for subtle distinctions of meaning - for example, if you use "unique" to mean "unusual", what word can you use when you really want to say "unique"?!

    • profile image

      Alex 

      9 years ago

      well. I didn't know that. anyway

      I'd like to ask you

      Is there any difference on this one If in American english we barely use Shall? I mean. I don't think this rule works for us. does it?

    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      9 years ago from UK

      Rino, The latter is preferable. Although "am" is present tense, the expression "when I am..." implies the future. Another way of phrasing it might be "When I get there I'll probably rent a car". However, the implication here is that the renting will take place on arrival, and "when I am ..." allows for the renting to happen at any time when the person is present - several days after arrival, maybe.

    • profile image

      Rino 

      9 years ago

      In conversational English, can I say "when I'll be there I can probably rent a car", or" when I am there I 'll probably rent a car"?

      Many Thanks

      Rino

    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      10 years ago from UK

      The safest rule to follow is only to use abbreviated forms in speech, and to spell them out in full at other times. In other words:

      "Will you be coming for dinner?" she asked David.

      "I'll let you know later", he replied.

      The assumption would be that this is a contraction of "I will". If you wanted to stress an intention rather than a prediction, you would have to say "I shall let you know".

    • funride profile image

      Ricardo Nunes 

      10 years ago from Portugal

      Another great one! I will remember it, I really will :)

      By the way, what is your opinion about abbreviations like "I´ll"? Is it wrong?

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