The Universe of Discourse

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:

Today the distinction between will and shall has become so muddled in all save the most painstaking and artificial varieties of American that it may almost be said to have ceased to exist.

That was no later than 1937, and he had been observing the trend as early as the first edition (1919):

… the distinction between will and shall, preserved in correct English but already breaking down in the most correct American, has been lost entirely in the American common speech.

But yesterday, to my amazement, I found myself grappling with it! I had written:

The problem to solve here … [is] “how can OP deal with the inescapable fact that they can't and won't pass the exam”.

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:

The problem to solve here … [is] “how can OP deal with the inescapable fact that they cannot and will not pass the exam”.

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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