May 13, 2013

Grammar Hammer: Shall We Dance?

Trying to decide when to use “shall” or “will” in a sentence really comes down to whether or not you’re a stickler for old grammar rules or you’re a grammarian of the people, by the people and for the people. Both words indicate the future tense.

The stickler version: use “shall” to indicate the future when using the first person (I/we) in a sentence.  Example: I shall go to the garden center tomorrow to take advantage of their BOGO deal on hanging baskets. Use “will” when using the second or third person (you/ he/she/they). Example: You will finish raking the yard before you go to the baseball game.

Here’s another way to look at it: “shall” indicates determination or intention; it implies that the action is mandatory.

In American English, “shall” has been replaced by “will” in most scenarios, although it is still found in legal documents. In a legal sense, “shall” indicates an explicit obligation. Go back to any lease you signed for an apartment and there’s probably a sentence that starts with “The terms of this lease shall commence…”

Great orators and speakers will use “shall” to deliver uplifting prose. Everyone had to memorize the Gettysburg Address in school, right? Say it with me, “…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government  of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

“Shall” is also used in polite conversation, especially when offering an invitation.  “Shall we dance?” for example.

Still confused?  Here’s a joke for you:

A foreign tourist was swimming in an English lake. Taken by cramps, he began to sink. He called out for help:

“Attention! Attention! I will drown and no one shall save me!”

Many people were within earshot, but, being well-brought up Englishmen and women, they honored his wishes and permitted him to drown.

This week’s topic was suggested by a reader from New Zealand (yes, it’s official, Grammar Hammer has a global audience), and I thank you profusely for reading.

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

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