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We know that the helping verb will refers to a person’s willingness or determination (intent or volition). Thus Gloria Gaynor sang, “I will survive.” And Freddie Mercury of Queen rallied, “We will rock you!”

But why did General Douglas MacArthur say in 1942, “I shall return”? Didn’t he perhaps mean “I will return”?

Shall is used in:

Making a suggestion – Examples: Shall we dance? Shall I organize the event tomorrow?

Drafting legal languageShall in contracts indicates a legal duty (in many instances, however, shall can be deleted and recast to create concise text). Examples: The premises shall be used by the Lessee only for residential purposes. Upon full payment of the price, the Seller shall transfer possession of the property to the Buyer.

Why not use will in legal language? Probably because the origin of the word will—Old English wyllan, the Dutch willen, and German wollen—means “wish,” while the origin of shall—Old English sceal, Dutch zal, and German soll—means “owe.” Shall implies obligation or necessity.

It is perhaps the reason why the Ten Commandments begin with “Thou shalt…”

Referring to a future action using first-person pronouns – In formal, traditional language, such as that used by General MacArthur, shall is used when referring to a future action using I or We. Examples: I shall return. We shall finish the report on Tuesday. I shall drive to La Union in an hour.

Contrast this use with second- and third-person pronouns: The engineers will receive a reply in an hour. Will you attend the meeting?

The use of shall for first-person pronouns is declining. More people favor will particularly to express strong determination. Example: I will report your disobedience to the authorities.

These days, people use shall and will interchangeably in statements, though not in questions (see first use of shall). Perhaps that is why the contractions we’ll, she’ll, he’ll or I’ll are often interpreted to mean both shall and will.

Check out the New American Oxford Dictionary for the usage of shall.

Photo credit: Najera-Javi Manzanares

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