or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Shall Game

"Will" and "shall" are currently interchangeable in North American English: "shall" has been losing ground for some time and continues to lose it. It's generally heard only in historical, formal or mock-formal speech: "We shall overcome!" "Shall we dance"? "I shall never, ever forget this insult!"

But once upon a time, the two had very different usages. There were quite a few rules governing the use of the two words, which no doubt I'll get into at a later date, but the first-person singular presents the most interesting case (as well as the easiest to grasp). "Will" has a number of meanings in English, one of which is "purposefulness" or "intention". The modal auxiliary "will", as this meaning suggests, involves volition or necessity, whereas "shall" involves simple futurity. "I will go" means that I am going because I want to (or must): "I shall go" says nothing more than that I'm going to go. "Shall", therefore, is, or used to be, the form to use when you're simply presenting information about plans: "I shall be at home this evening."

If you'd like to use the two words as they once were used, you might try to remember what my grade 5 English teacher taught me: the drowning man says, "I shall die! No one will save me!", and the suicide says, "I will die! No one shall save me!"


Blogger Frank said...

Your fifth grade teacher taught you about drowning victims and suicides? How morbid!

Thursday, May 19, 2005 12:10:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

I know! Nowadays they wouldn't dare, but it was a vivid way to explain the difference; it certainly helped it stick in my head for all these years.

Thursday, May 19, 2005 5:09:00 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

Yes, today they'd be sued out of existence if they tried that. But I'm still shocked that they did it "then" (just a few years ago, I'm sure). I mean, I always thought suicide was one of those "unmentionable" things that adults wouldn't go into with kids.

Thursday, May 19, 2005 5:27:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

This was a somewhat eccentric teacher. (Perhaps some day I'll tell you what she said about the correct use of toilet paper.) As for "a few years ago", it was more than just a few: I was in the fifth grade in 1973-74, so that's over thirty years ago. I have friends who weren't even born when I was in fifth grade.

Thursday, May 19, 2005 9:41:00 PM  

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