Shall and will

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Shall and will are both modal verbs in English mainly used to express futurity.



Both shall and will are verbs of ancient Germanic ancestry. In Proto-Indo-European, an inflected future tense existed, but that tense was lost in Germanic. In all Germanic languages, the future tense is formed with auxiliary verbs; this was the case in Gothic and the earliest recorded expressions of Germanic languages.

The verb shall represents Old English sceal, and is cognate with Old Norse skal, German soll, and Dutch zal; these all represent *skol-, the O-grade of Indo-European *skel-. All of these verbs function as auxiliaries in each language, and represent either simple futurity or necessity.

The verb will is cognate with the noun will, of course, and continues Old English willan, which represents *willjan. it occurse in Old Norse vilja, German wollen, Gothic wiljan; it has many relatives outside of Germanic as well, including, for example, Latin velle "to wish for"; the root also occurs in voluptas, "pleasure."; all of these forms derive from the E-grade or O-grade of Indo-European *wel-, meaning to wish for or to desire.

In addition to shall and will, other verbs were used as future auxiliaries in Old English, including mun, a defective verb that is the immediate source of Scots maun, and also related to Modern English must.

Both verbs are preterite-present verbs in Old English, as they were generally in Germanic. This means that in their conjugation, they were conjugated in the preterite tense with present meaning. They show this status by the fact that they are conjugated in the third person as she shall (as opposed to *she shalls.) Will can be conjugated in both ways (she will, she wills) with a difference in meaning; the simple present form is not used as an auxiliary verb. The forms should and would are neologisms made with the dental suffix of the weak verbs.

To the extent that it is claimed that shall and will carry different meanings depending on which grammatical person they are conjugated in, they represent an example of suppletion, the commingling of words from separate roots into a single paradigm. The two words have entirely different etymologies, and the distinction (if it exists, or ever really existed) cannot be justified on etymological grounds.

According to Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, the distinction, or supposed distinction, in meaning between shall and will as markers of a simple future arose from the practice of English schools in the fourteenth century and their Latin exercises. It was the custom in these schools to use will to translate Latin velle; because shall had no exact equivalent in Latin, it was used to translate the Latin future tense. John Wycliffe used it consistently in this manner in his Bible translation into Middle English. Will was already beginning to predominate as the marker for the simple future through all grammatical persons as the marker for the simple future in English, and is the usual marker for a simple future in Chaucer, for example. The usage of the schools kept shall alive in this role.

Traditional usage

Pure system

Shall and will are now most often used as auxiliary or modal verbs. However, they have their origins as main verbs and in what is known as the pure system are still used in their original Old English senses, regardless of grammatical person:

  • Shall and its past tense form should has the meaning of command or obligation.
  • Will and its past tense form would has the meaning of wish.


  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Shall I open the door?
  • You should not say such things.
  • And shall Trelawny die?
  • Whom should he meet but Jones? (...was it his fate...)
  • Why should you suspect me?
  • It should seem so. (It would apparently be incumbent on us to believe)
  • I will have my way.
  • I (he) asked him (me) to do it, but he (I) would not.
  • I would not have done it for the world.
  • I would be told to wait a while (Habitual).
  • Will you come with me?
  • I would I were dead.
  • He will bite his nails, whatever I say.
  • He will often stand on his head.
  • You will still be talking (i.e., you always are).
  • A coat will last two years with care.

(examples from Fowler (

Simple future

Old English did not have a future tense, but because the verbs shall and will hint at one, they were conscripted by the language's development and became modal verbs.

In declarative sentences under the pure system, shall is not used in the first person, since one does not usually give commands to oneself. So shall became the auxiliary verb for expressing simple futurity in the first person. Will, on the other hand, is not often used in the second and third persons in statements under the pure system, and so second and third person will became the auxiliary verb for expressing simple futurity in the second and third persons:

  • Shall and its past tense form should denote simple futurity in the first person.
  • Will and its past tense form would denote simple futurity in the second and third persons.


  • I shall, you will, die some day.
  • Shall I, will they, be here to-morrow?
  • We should, he would, have consented if you had asked.
  • Should we, would he, have missed you if you had been there?
  • I should, you would, like a bathe.
  • Should I, would he, like it myself, himself?

Colored future

As a modification of the simple future, the verbs shall and will are used to express the speaker's wish, intention, menace, assurance, consent, refusal, promise, offer, permission, command, etc. Under this colored future system, the verbs are really used as extensions of the pure system verbs shall and will:

  • Shall and its past tense form should denote colored futurity in the second and third persons.
  • Will and its past tense form would denote colored futurity in the first person.


  • I will tell you presently. (My promise.)
  • You shall repent it before long. (My menace.)
  • He shall not have any. (My refusal.)
  • We would go if we could. (Our conditional intention.)
  • You should do it if we could make you. (Our conditional command.)
  • They should have had it if they had asked. (My conditional consent.)


Shall is sometimes stronger than will: "You will stay?" – "I shan't." Will is also used to express commands: "You will do your homework." (The simple future is used since it is assumed that "you" will comply.) Or, surprisingly, to soften a request, though would is more common here. "Will you kindly hand me that pen?" (or "Would you kindly ...")

Another point to note is that the auxiliary used in questions should be the one expected in the answer: "Shall you accompany me?" – "I shall." To use will here would be a request; going-to future would express more the intention than mere futurity.
For example: "Should you like it?" expects the answer "Yes, I should" or "No, I shouldn't", whereas "Would you like it?" expects the answer "Yes, you would" (or the corresponding negative) from the same speaker (or used rhetorically), since "you would" is the right form for the speaker, but not for the respondent (if he or she exists).

The first-person distinctions taught by the prescriptive grammar tradition in British English may give rise to ambiguities for hearers who do not draw the same distinctions. *The Archbishop of Canterbury said that we should all sin from time to time.

Current common usage

According to English language expert Charles Talbut Onions, the correct idiomatic use of shall and will is an infallible test of the true English speaker, since American, Irish, and Scottish speakers have such difficulty using the words correctly.

Some people regard this approach as too formal, though, and some claim that will is displacing shall in most situations, particularly so because the useful contraction 'll stands for both these modal verbs. Whereas the rule still has some force in British English, in American English shall has a much more restricted role, and the negative contraction shan't does not occur.

"I shall" as the simple future is quickly passing out of all usage as the first person increasingly mirrors the second and third: that is, "I/we will" is understood as being equivalent in meaning to "you will", and "I shall" means the same as "you shall". The old should-would distinction has to some extent passed out of modern speech and is used mainly as an archaism or affectation; would is now invariably the simple conditional, while should is synonymous with ought to. See Will (verb) for further details.

Nevertheless, there are notable remaining uses of shall and should which remain present in modern language:

  • phrases such as 'I should think', 'I should say' or 'I should imagine'
  • conditional 'should', expressing less probability in a Type I conditional (eg, 'If they should succeed, I will resign.')
  • a speaker who normally says I will or I'll may use I shall as a marker of irony.
  • 'other uses' noted below

It is advisable not to use shall at all if you do not understand the traditional difference well. Improper usage is immediately apparent to those who make the distinction, and you may come off as pretentious. To those who do not distinguish between shall and will, shall may seem archaic or affected. Shall is a sensitive word and should be used with caution.


The negative form of shall is shall not, or shan't. Shall is pronounced in three different ways:

  • the non-stressed form: IPA )
  • the strong form: IPA or )

Shan't is always pronounced as IPA ).

See also

External links


  • Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: (Merriam-Webster, 1989) ISBN 0-87779-132-5

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