Shall

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A verb that seems so safe — so forensic — fusty, old-fashioned, stolid, goodie-two-shoes — but yet so tantalisingly vague.

Vague in that “shall” can be an airily floated aspiration for the future — “I say,” said Jenkins, absent-mindedly knocking out his pipe on a passing child’s head, “I do believe I shall go to the theatre tonight!” — but just as easily can be a stentorian direction to an underling to carry out a binding duty: “You shall do the dishes, young lady, and you shall do them NOW”.[1]

Lawyers like the latter formulation, a lot, and spray it around as if they’re standing behind a Gatling gun loaded with shalls.[2] But here’s the problem: conjugation. A wilful shall to me is a stentorian one to you, and vice versa.[3] You can’t just spray your shalls and wills around around willy-nilly.

Airily floated future aspiration

Stentorian command

I shall
You will
He she or it will
We shall
You will
They will
I will
You shall
He she or it shall
We will
You shall
They shall

If, in other words, you’re going to be a dick about it, then you have to be careful which you mean, especially if you are one of these new age folk who like to write contracts in the first and second person. There again, if you’re one of those, you’re not likely to be using any kind of shall in the first place, because “mustwill do, and it won’t make you sound like such an egg.

Still, “shall” has its defenders, including no less a doyen than that self-styled style guru and all-round Robert Fripp of plain English advocacy, Ken Adams who, in his epochal A Manual of Applicable Style for the Drafting of Contractual Instruments sets out, over ten pages of tightly-numbered paragraphs, his reasons why “shall” is still the top dog when it comes to articulating one party’s duty to the other. Now Mr. Adams is a fellow of strong opinions about inconsequential things, we lose interest in the debate by page sixteen and just feel, viscerally, that “shall” is a fusty old word, no-one uses it anymore in normal conversation, “must” will do perfectly well instead and is more idiomatic. “Not so!” squeaks Mr. Adams, and carries on at some length but, readers, the JC’s eyes glaze over — by all means buy his doorstop if you’re interested in his argument and have a monkey to spare; his Twitter feed is a riot too, if that’s your bag — but in our 30 years of commercial law we’ve not found a clinching justification to use “shall”, so we shall not start doing so now.

References

  1. Real life example.
  2. Thank-you, ladies and gentlemen. There’s a hat going round.
  3. Authority no less impressive than the Oxford English Dictionary:“The traditional rule is that shall is used with first person pronouns (i.e. I and we) to form the future tense, while will is used with second and third person forms (i.e. you, he, she, it, they). [...] However, when it comes to expressing a strong determination to do something, the roles are reversed: will is used with the first person, and shall with the second and third.”