Shall and Will An Historical Study – Why did we drop “shall” in favor of “will”?

Jul 12, 2019 | English and Study Tips, Smart Brains Spotlight

Shall and Will – An Historical Study

 

DR. Nick Nicholas

 

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The topic for today is “Shall and Will – An Historical Study”.

 

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Today we learned about “Shall and Will – An Historical Study, Why did we drop “shall” in favor of “will”?“.  So the distinction between shall and will went from a meaningful distinction, to a subtle distinction (with more overt equivalents available elsewhere), to a formal, empty, and bizarrely unforthcoming distinction.

 

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Shall and Will – An Historical Study – Why did we drop “shall” in favor of “will”?

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Shall and Will An Historical Study

Shall and Will – An Historical Study – Why did we drop “shall” in favor of “will” | Thanks, DR. Nick Nicholas

 

 

Shall and Will – An Historical Study

Why did we drop “shall” in favor of “will”?

 

DR. Nick Nicholas

 

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What is the dfference between will and shall?

 
 

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Shall and Will – An Historical Study – Why did we drop “shall” in favor of “will”?

 

Shall and Will An Historical Study Answer by DR. Nick Nicholas, ( PhD in Linguistics from Melbourne University, lectured historical linguistics ). All credit goes to DR. Nick Nicholas, Thank you!
 
Shall and Will An Historical Study 7.5 / 10
 
 
 

Shall and Will An Historical Study QUESTION: Shall and Will – An Historical Study – Why did we drop “shall” in favor of “will”?

 

Originally, as modal verbs, the meanings of shall and will were starkly different: they corresponded in meaning to Modern ought to vs want to.

 

Then both modal verbs evolved into future markers. The primary meaning of both became that the situation they attached to would take place in the future; the distinction became one of colouring (“X will happen in the future, and it ought to happen”, vs “X will happen in the future, and someone wants it to happen.”) That’s a useful distinction to retain in legal language, as Charles R. Butler Neto’s answer points out, and of course legal language is archaic and pedantic to begin with.

 

Then the colouring became more attenuated, especially as the more explicit ought to and want to remained in use. In fact, it degenerated into the quite arbitrary distinction in formal English, that when the sense is just futurity and not obligation or desire, the 1st person uses shall and the 2nd and 3rd person uses will.

 

That’s a holdover from their original meanings; I’m presuming it’s some bizarre manifestation of negative politeness, of the kind that runs all over the English language: it’s presumptuous of me to say that I want to do X (will go to the tavern, dammit! And have myself a rocking good time!), I have to say that I’m merely obligated to do X (Alas, I shall go to the tavern, forced by needs of sustenance, and not because Your Obedient Servant would have the temerity to choose to have any fun.)

 

But you, or third parties, you can do whatever you feel like, and far be it from me to impose any obligation on you (You will go to the tavern! And have fun! Because I shall never constrain your liberty!) If you do want to be presumptuous enough to impose obligations, well, then you do use shall in the 2nd or 3rd person: You shall fetch me a flagon of ale when you will go to the tavern!

 

So the distinction between shall and will went from a meaningful distinction, to a subtle distinction (with more overt equivalents available elsewhere), to a formal, empty, and bizarrely unforthcoming distinction.

 

As the Greek language blogger Nikos Sarantakos writes about language change in that language: “nice distinctions sure do burn down nicely.” (Οι όμορφες διακρίσεις όμορφα καίγονται.) Even the subtle legal distinction was doomed to be ignored as overly subtle. The formal distinction just looks arbitrary, and analogy was bound to do away with it, boiling it down to something simpler and easier to remember.

 

Shall and Will An Historical Study In this case, will simply took over, aided by the fact that shall (the more marked form, being confined to the first person) came to be regarded as stuffy and over-formal. And possibly the fact that shall had negative connotations already, because in the 2nd and 3rd person, it had ended up a passive-aggressive way of issuing commands.

 

Reference:  DR. Nick Nicholas.  “In the English language, why did we drop “shall” in favor of “will”?” originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

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Shall and Will – An Historical Study – Why did we drop “shall” in favor of “will”?

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