Tue, 22 Feb 2022
“Shall” and “will” strike back from beyond the grave
In former times and other dialects of English, there was a distinction between ‘shall’ and ‘will’. To explain the distinction correctly would require research, and I have a busy day today. Instead I will approximate it by saying that up to the middle of the 19th century, ‘shall’ referred to events that would happen in due course, whereas ‘will' was for events brought about intentionally, by force of will. An English child of the 1830's, stamping its foot and shouting “I will have another cookie”, was expressing its firm intention to get the cookie against all opposition. The same child shouting “I shall have another cookie” was making a prediction about the future that might or might not have turned out to be correct.
In American English at least, this distinction is dead. In The American Language, H.L. Mencken wrote:
That was no later than 1937, and he had been observing the trend as early as the first edition (1919):
But yesterday, to my amazement, I found myself grappling with it! I had written:
To me, the “won't” connoted a willful refusal on the part of OP, in the sense of “I won't do it!”, and not what I wanted to express, which was an inevitable outcome. I'm not sure whether anyone else would have read it the same way, but I was happier after I rewrote it:
I could also gotten the meaning I wanted by replacing “can't and won't” with “can't and shan't” — except that “shan't’ is dead, I never use it, and, had I thought of it, I would have made a rude and contemptuous nose noise.
Mencken says “the future in English is most commonly expressed by neither shall nor will, but by the must commoner contraction 'll’. In this case that wasn't true! I wonder if he missed the connotation of “won't” that I felt, or if the connotation arose after he wrote his book, or if it's just something idiosyncratic to me.
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