When was the last time you used the word “shan’t”? Unless you’re British, telling your friend, “I shan’t go to the theatre with you on Saturday night,” will likely raise an eyebrow. Americans are lackadaisical in their use of will versus shall compared to the British. We sometimes know when to use each these modal verbs simply by the way they sound in a sentence, but do we understand the rule of usage? Probably not in much detail.
Bossy Commands vs Polite Requests
If you’re annoyed with someone who is pestering you, you might utter, “Will you just go away!” In this example you’re being demonstrative. It is clear you want them to leave immediately. You wouldn’t say, “Shall you go away!”
If you want someone to do you a favor, you want to sound polite in your request. “Will you please bring me a glass of wine?” If you said, “Shall you bring me a glass of wine?” They might respond with, “I don’t know, shall I?” and then walk out of the room thinking you’re weird. Then you would have to get your lazy butt off the sofa and get your own wine.
Shall is often used in legal documents to indicate binding obligation. For example, if you read a publishing contract, you will come across this type of sentence:
“The Publisher shall have the sole and exclusive right to publish or to license the Work for publication in the English language, etc.” Even though the word will works fine, shall is the chosen word.
The Future of Future Tense
The verb will is like a crystal ball. It is needed when referring to a future act, state, or condition according to The Chicago Manual of Style. For example: “She will sing the National Anthem before the baseball game.” It’s a done deal. She’s been given the honor and unless she meets with an unfortunate occurrence or gets stage freight, we can expect her to perform. In this case, will is not interchangeable with shall. SO: “She shall sing the Natural Anthem at the baseball game,” indicates that she is capable, or has been given permission, but doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen. Some grammarians believe the future tense is going the way of the buffalo. So, will the future tense disappear? Maybe. Shall the future tense disappear? Its existence is out of our control.
Strunk and White show the difference with very little explanation in their classic grammar book, The Elements of Style. They simply use two examples:
A swimmer going down for the third time cries out, “I shall drown; no one will save me!’
But if that swimmer wanted to drown, he would say, possibly in a quiet, pathetic voice, “I will drown; no one shall save me.”
In closing, I’d like to add, “Will you please share this? I shan’t ask again.”
by Réanne Hemingway-Douglass
Growing up with a mother who was a graduate in English and Journalism and who could whip out press releases in a moment’s time; and a father with a doctorate in law, who could write elegant prose and humorous poetry, didn’t guarantee those skills would automatically pass on to me. On the contrary, early on, their example intimidated me. As a result, I became shy about expressing myself, both verbally and later in writing.
Although I managed all A’s in high school English, I had a blue fear of writing essays or stories. In college, I had a fantastic English professor who saw promise in my writing and encouraged me to keep a journal. During my junior year, I decided to major in French. I spent that year as a foreign exchange student in Grenoble, France and this is when my journaling began. I still have that small green leather book with lined pages—the first of many journals, all of which I still have.
Years passed, working and raising a family as a single mother with two young sons consumed most of my time. I attended graduate school and held down two teaching jobs. Somewhere along the line I signed up for writing classes. The first assignment was to stare at a corner of the lecture room and write about it. I sat. I stared. I couldn’t come up with one single word, but I didn’t give up. Eventually I found other teachers who inspired me with better ideas than staring at a corner. I began to loosen up; my pen began to flow; my journals filled.
Then my life took a surprising turn. My second husband came with a dream of sailing around Cape Horn and circumnavigating the Southern Hemisphere. On October 21, 1974, we set sail out from Los Angeles. Six weeks into the voyage, our dream trip shattered. By the time we left Mexico, all four boys had bailed out. Don and I continued alone. Three months later, as we neared Cape Horn, we encountered near-hurricane force winds and seas. Our boat pitchpoled, a nautical term meaning the upending of a boat where the stern passes over its bow and the vessel is dropped upside down. It is usually fatal, but we survived. Luckily, my journals survived too.
When I retuned to the states I turned my journals into a manuscript. I caught the attention of an agent, but he wanted me to turn it into a novel. I refused. As time passed, my book took on many different shapes. I was accepted into Antioch University’s prestigious masters Writing Program, with the book project as my proposed thesis. Before I could complete the program, it was cancelled for lack of funding. The manuscript sat untouched for almost a decade.
One evening, I pulled out my journal and relived all those memories. Inspiration struck. Two years later, I was a published author. Cape Horn: One Man’s Dream, One Woman’s Nightmare became a bestseller.
After more than thirty years of seeing my articles in print, completing the second edition of Cape Horn, co-writing a series of nautical guidebooks, and serving as editor for other companies and authors, you would think I’d have lost my fear of writing. But these questions still arise: Do I really want to be a writer? Do I really want to sell myself? Do I want to engage in the politics of the publishing business? Thankfully, the fear and doubt are short-lived. The answer to those nagging questions is always, “Yes!”
I love the craft of writing, conducting the research for my articles and books, sharing my life adventures and experiences, and most of all, receiving positive feedback from my readers.