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?”.


  • 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.
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2 Responses 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.

  2. George says:

    A long time ago I was taught that “shall” was for common use in the first person and that “will” was for common use in the second and third person. For emphatic use, the opposite was the case. “Will” was for emphatic first person and “shall” for emphatic second and third person.

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