• 2-minute read
  • 28th October 2017

Word Choice: Shall vs. Will

Following up on our previous post about the future tense, we thought we should take a closer look at the words ‘will’ and ‘shall’. How should they be used? Are they interchangeable? And how do you avoid misusing these terms in your written work? In the following, we explain all.

Shall (First Person)

Traditionally, ‘shall’ is used when discussing the future in the first person. As such, if using the future tense with the pronouns ‘I’ or ‘we’, we would use ‘shall’:

I shall see you tomorrow.

We shall be there soon.

This might sound a bit unusual, since ‘shall’ is far less common now than it used to be. But if you want to stick to the traditional usage, you should use this term with first-person pronouns.

Will (Second and Third Person)

‘Will’, meanwhile, has traditionally been used to discuss the future in the second and third person. This includes the pronouns ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ and ‘it’. For instance:

She will revolutionise the industry!

They will regret that decision.

It will all be okay in the end.

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This, of course, only reflects the use of ‘will’ as a modal verb. It has other meanings (e.g. the legal document or the mental faculty), but these are not related to the use of ‘will’ in the future tense.

Yet another type of ‘Will’.
(Photo: Georges Biard)

Emphatic Reversals

If you want to state something strongly, the shall–will distinction is reversed. The most famous example of this comes from Cinderella, where the Fairy Godmother tells Cinders:

You shall go to the ball!

Here, for example, ‘shall’ is used with the second-person pronoun ‘you’ to add emphasis. This kind of reversal is quite rare, but it’s worth keeping in mind if you’re sticking to traditional usage.

It’s a shame that we lost the ability to turn pumpkins into public transport.

Shall or Will?

Now to take back most of the above: the distinctions above are fairly old fashioned. For instance, in modern English, ‘will’ is accepted in most situations. On a day-to-day basis, you can therefore use ‘will’ with the second and third person without worrying about being wrong.

But if you need to be formal (or just like a spot of pedantry), it may be a good idea to distinguish between these terms. Remember:

Shall = First person

Will = Second and third person

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