Sunday, December 12, 2010

I wonder if people will still say shall in the future.

An annotated grammatical investigation into the uses of shall
Quiz 1 - Future forms
Quiz 2 - Future expressions
Quiz 3 - Advanced question tags

One thing about this blogging lark, especially when you blog about language, is that you start noticing the words and structures you've used. I was preparing some notes on conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs the other day, when I noticed I had written:

Profits have been down this year. Consequently, we shall have to cut back on costs.

And I wondered why I had written 'shall' and not 'will'?

 Don't we (Brits) usually only use shall in offers and suggestions:
  • Shall I get you another coffee? - offer
  • Shall we get tickets for that new film? - suggestion
  • Are you ready? Shall we go? - suggestion
  • And of course: Shall we dance?

or when asking for somebody's opinion or advice, such as:
  • Where shall I put your tea?
  • Who shall we ask to the party?
  • I'm so bored. What shall I do tonight?
  • When shall I see you again?

And from Shakespeare's Macbeth:
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Notice that all the examples are in the first person, single or plural. Note also that when used for advice we could equally well use should.

Then of course we also use shall in question tags with let's and offers, even when we don't use shall in the first part.
  • Let's go to the cinema tonight, shall we?
  • I'll close the window, shall I?

And these uses are really all learners need to know. But less well known is that in British English, although the practice is apparently in decline, we can use shall more or less interchangeably with will in the first person - I and we (but not with he, she, it you and they) when using Future Simple. Which, at least partly, explains my use in the example above. But I was inquisitive to know more, and I have to warn you that it might now get a bit grammar geeky for a while. If that's not your cup of tea, you might at this point want to skip to the quizzes.

Apparently things weren't always quite so straightforward. In a famous quotation (well, famous amongst grammar geeks) from the influential style and usage guide 'The King's English', published in 1908, H.W. Fowler said:

It is unfortunate that the idiomatic use [of shall], while it comes by nature to southern Englishmen (who will find most of this section superfluous), is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it; and for them the section is in danger of being useless. In apology for the length of these remarks it must be said that the short and simple directions often given are worse than useless. The observant reader soon loses faith in them from their constant failure to take him right; and the unobservant is the victim of false security.


In other words, for southern Englishmen, using shall is second nature, but for everybody else, 'tough luck, you'll never master it, but I'll try to show you anyway'. He then goes on for some twenty pages, defining the specific occasions when we should use shall and when we should use will.

While I'm not a southern Englishman, my particular dialect of English is Received Pronunciation (RP), which is closely associated with that part of Britain, so I suppose I count as an honorary member for these purposes. The numbers who speak pure RP are, I have to admit, in rapid decline. We are in fact a dying breed, mourned by few, apart from the Queen's English Society and readers of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. When I said to a teacher colleague of mine the other day, 'Apparently only 2% of British people speak like me.' Her reply was a pithy, 'As many as that?' I don't think she was altogether joking!

Anyway, to cut a very long story short, historically there was no future tense. There were two normal verbs: will, meaning to wish or want, and shall, meaning something like ought to. The past forms of these verbs were would and should, respectively. Fowler calls the use of these verbs in their original way, without any future meaning, the 'pure' system, and I will (or shall) call it type 1.

Increasingly people started to use these verbs to give a future meaning to other verbs. Sometimes they kept the original emotional meaning of the pure form; Fowler calls this the 'coloured-future' system, and I will (or shall) call it type 2.

But people also began using these verbs simply to talk about the future without any emotional overtones, Fowler calls this 'plain-future' system, and which is now sometimes referred to as simple futurity (horrible sounding word!), and which we know as Future Simple. And logically enough, I will (or shall) call it type 3.

As I understand it, the traditional rules went something like this:
  1. pure
    - shall for orders etc., - I (we) don't usually give myself (ourselves) orders; on the other hand, we can can ask for them, and give them to other people.
    - will for wish, desire etc., - I (we) know what I (we) want (will), but can't speak for what other people want; on the other hand, we can ask them know when they refuse.
    • you use shall with I and we when asking somebody what they want us to do
    • you use shall with you, he, she, it, they for commands
    • you use will with I and we, meaning it is my will, I want to
    • you use will with you, he, she, it, they where the person's will is involved, especially in questions and negatives .
  2. coloured-future - to express determination or command:
    • you use will with I or we
    • but shall with you, he, she, it, they.
  3. plain-future - for simple futurity:
    • you use shall with I or we
    • but will with you, he, she, it, they.

Some examples of Type 1 - obligation and desire.
  • Shall I open a window?
  • Thou shalt not steal - one of the ten commandments
  • I will have my way.
  • Will she do as I ask? No, she won't. (Is she willing? No, she refuses to do it.)

Some examples of type 2 - determination and command
  • I will climb that damned mountain, whatever you say.
  • You shall go to the ball, the fairy godmother says to Cinderella.

And some examples of type 3 - simple futurity
  • I shall call the 'pure system' Type 1.
  • We shall be late if we don't hurry.
  • They will phone us when they get there.

I hope you're following me, because I'm not 100% convinced I'm following myself. But it doesn't really matter anyway, because luckily for those of us who still anachronistically persist in using shall, these precisions don't apply any more, if in fact they in ever did.

According to R.L. Trask, in Say What You Mean! A Troubleshooter's Guide to English Style & Usage, these traditional rules regarding shall and will are 'little more than a fantastic invention.' And Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage states that such rules 'do not appear to have described real usage of these words very precisely at any time, although there is no question that they do describe the usage of some people some of the time and that they are more applicable in England than elsewhere.' So it seems poor old Fowler was simply whistling in the wind.

Which doesn't stop a blogger at Motivated Grammar writing:

I couldn’t understand the joke about the non-English speaker of English (variously portrayed as French, Scottish, or Irish) who was drowning and cried out “I will drown; no one shall save me!” and thus had his cries for help mistaken as a statement of suicide because he’d swapped will and shall.

He needn't worry, the vast majority of British shall users wouldn't have understood the joke either, for the reasons put forward by Trask and Merriam-Webster. But I'll try and explain the joke anyway.

According to the traditionalist rules the swimmer should have shouted:

I shall drown; no one will save me!
- both verbs being about simple statements of fact (Type 3).

By saying it the way he did, the traditionalist theory goes, he was in fact saying:

I want to (will) drown; no one should / ought to (shall) save me!
- the two verbs being about determination and command respectively (Type 2 or perhaps even Type 1).

But the joke is really only funny to linguists or grammarians who understand these rules.

This is because those of us who still occasionally use shall for the future (as opposed to offers and suggestions), only use it for the last category - simple futurity. And even then we interchange it freely with will. Nobody would have noticed the determination and command bit, because we don't use shall for that meaning any more (if we ever did). So the swimmer would have been saved, unless perhaps the people in earshot were members of the Queen's English Society.

And so back to my original question to myself. Why did I use shall instead of will on that precise occasion? Here's the sentence again:

Profits have been down this year. Consequently, we shall have to cut back on costs.

Don't ask me why, but for some reason, we'll doesn't seem to work here. I think it's probably because I'm giving serious news, therefore I need the gravitas of a full, uncontracted auxiliary. So (in British English) I'm left with the choice between will and shall. My guess is that, as I had the choice, it had more to do with phonetics than semantics. In other words, in that particular sentence, my mouth had to do less work (move less) to say the unstressed shall (which sounds more like sh'll) than it would have done to say the uncontracted version of will. Try it yourself. Anyway, that's my theory.

Quizzes


1. Future forms quiz.

I've decided not to include shall, to keep things a bit clearer. Choose one of the options to fill the gaps. Where more than one is possible, choose the most suitable.

Click to drop - Fill the gaps by clicking on the appropriate option (in grey). If you change your mind just repeat the process.


1. What later tonight?
will you do - are you doing - have you done
2. They the report by Friday, at the latest.
will have finished - will be finishing - we finish
3. This is your pilot speaking, we in ten minutes.
will land - are going to land - will be landing
4. I have decided I look at holiday offers tomorrow
will - am going to - am looking
5. This time next week, I on a beach in Spain.
will be lying - will lie - am going to lie
6. If the bus doesn't come in the next five minutes, it means I for half an hour.
am waiting - will have been waiting - will have waited
7. According to the timetable, the train at 18.30.
will leave - is going to leave - leaves
8. Hurry up, the train in five minutes.
will leave - is leaving - will have been leaving
9. Just look at that huge traffic jam, we late.
are going to be - will be - will have been
10. Now I've finished this exercise, I think I another coffee.
am having - will have - will be having


2. Future expressions quiz

These expressions with is ... to, which are often used in newspapers, are quite similar. See if you can work out which goes where.

Click and drop - Fill the gaps by clicking on a word or expression in the top box (in grey) and then on the corresponding box. If you change your mind just repeat the process.


is to   -   is set to   -   is due to   -   is bound to   -   is about to  

1.According to the timetable, the train leave at 18.30.
2.Hurry up, the train leave.
3.The Internet become a bigger advertising medium than the traditional press.
4.The government has announced it introduce a new law on smoking.
5.Just look at this huge traffic jam, it make us late.



3. Question tags. We saw that shall is used in some question tags. Most question tags are fairly obvious, such as 'You're French, aren't you'. However some are not quite so straightforward. Try this quiz to do with more advanced question tags. If you need a reminder how they work, you can look at this web page.

Fill the gaps by typing in suitable question tags.

1.Lovely day, ?
2.Let's go now, ?
3.Give me a hand, ?
4.Don't forget to email me, ?
5.Somebody asked for cake, ?
6.Nobody phoned while I was out, ?
7.I'm a bit late, ?
8.Come and sit here by me, ?
9.You would have done the same, ?
10.She couldn't have missed the train, ?
11.Everything is OK, ?
12.Nothing can go wrong, ?



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