Shall obsolete?

Peter Tiersma, in a chapter called “The Legal Lexicon”, notes:

In American English, shall has become virtually obsolete, so that the sole future modal verb is will (Tiersma 1999:105).

Is this indeed the case? Do copy editors allow “I will” in texts these days, or only in texts by American authors? What about British texts they edit? And since when has shall been obsolete? Eighteenth-century grammarians tended to accuse Americans of being unable to distinguish between shall and will: perhaps this distinction was never part of American grammar to begin with, despite what Webster claimed in 1784 (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1985:130), so that we can’t properly consider it obsolete to begin with.

Upon reading this post yesterday, one of my colleagues (not a native speaker of English) sent me the following anecdote:

The shall/will issue made me think of a conference in Düsseldorf in the mid 90’s  resulting in the volume Taming the Vernacular. In the coffee-break after a lecture on the subject I asked a fellow scholar [a native speaker of British English] to what extent she used ‘shall’. She said that she didn’t think she used it at all. The next thing she said was: “Shall I pour you a cup of coffee?”.

References:

  • Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid (1985). “‘I will be drowned and no man shall save me’: The conventional rules for shall and will in eighteenth-century English grammars”. English Studies 66. 123–142.
  • Tiersma, Peter M. (1999). “The legal lexicon”. Chapter 6 in Legal Language. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 87-114.
About these ads
Gallery | This entry was posted in usage features. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Shall obsolete?

  1. Froukje says:

    What we teach our pupils in secondary school is that SHALL is only obligatory in questions for I and WE. I wouldn’t say “obsolete”, but on on a slippery slope nonetheless.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s