Shall or Will?

by Craig Shrives

Shall or Will?

What is the difference between "shall" and "will"?

Nowadays, Americans tend not to use "shall" to form the future tense. In British English, "shall" is still used to form the future tense, particularly when the subject is "I" or "we." However, most Brits now use "will." This is a relatively new development.
shall or will?
This graph shows the recent decline of "shall" in British English.

Create this graph yourself using Google's Ngram Viewer.

The Difference between "Shall" and "Will"

Traditionally, there was the following distinction:
  • Use "shall" when the subject is "I" or "we."
    • I shall use my discretion. (traditionally)
  • Use "will" when the subject is not "I" or "we."
    • He will use his discretion. (traditionally)
This distinction still exists if the sentence is a question. For example:
  • Shall we discuss this matter tomorrow?
  • Will they discuss this matter tomorrow?
Of interest, if you need to convey that something must happen (typically out of a sense of duty), then you can swap "shall" for "will" (and vice versa). For example:
  • I will use my discretion.
  • (Traditionally, using "will" instead of "shall" provided emphasis.)
  • He shall use his discretion.
  • (Traditionally, using "shall" instead of "will" provided emphasis.)
You can still use this technique, but, in truth, the nuance sought is likely to go unnoticed by most of your readers. (There is more on this below.)

More about "Shall" and "Will"

The main use of the auxiliary verbs "will" and "shall" is to form the future tense. For example:
  • I will arrive on Tuesday.
  • I shall arrive on Tuesday.
However, these days, the use of "shall" to form the future tense is becoming rarer (especially in the US), and it is safe to use "will" every time. In fact, to say it's "safe to use "will" every time" is understating the case. Unless you're asking a question, it is largely expected (particularly in the US).

That said, it might be useful to know the traditional rules for using "will" and "shall" because you never know when you might have to showcase your grammar skills or write to an audience of grammar pedants.

The Traditional Rules for Forming the Future Tense with "Will" and "Shall"

The traditional rules for forming the future tense with "will" and "shall" are as follows:
PersonPronoun
Noun
Future TenseExample
1st Person
Singular
IshallI shall be there soon.
2nd Person
Singular
YouwillYou will be there soon.
3rd Person
Singular
He, She,
It
willHe will be there soon.
1st Person
Plural
WeshallWe shall be there soon.
2nd Person
Plural
YouwillYou will be there soon.
3rd Person
Plural
TheywillThey will be there soon.
Just to reiterate though, nowadays, it is okay to use "will" in every instance.

Conveying a Sense of Importance or Duty with "Will" and "Shall"

If something is to happen in the future and you want to convey the idea that it must definitely happen (especially out of a sense of duty), then it all switches. In other words, it goes like this:
PersonPronoun
Noun
Future TenseExample
1st Person
Singular
IwillI will attend the meeting.
2nd Person
Singular
YoushallYou shall attend the meeting.
3rd Person
Singular
He, She,
It
shallHe shall attend the meeting.
1st Person
Plural
WewillWe will attend the meeting.
2nd Person
Plural
YoushallYou shall attend the meeting.
3rd Person
Plural
TheyshallThey shall attend the meeting.
Look at these examples:
  • I will guarantee your safe passage.
  • (If this were just the future tense (i.e., without any sense of duty attached), then, traditionally, it should read "I shall guarantee ." As it doesn't, the use of "will" could convey a sense of duty to some of your readers. However, the overwhelming majority of your readers are likely to think that you've just opted for "will" over "shall" as a way of forming the future tense. In other words, they won't give it a second thought.)
  • You shall ask a question on recruitment at the end of the presentation.
  • (If this were just the future tense (i.e., without any sense of duty attached), then it should read "You will ask…." Again, for some of your readers, the use of "shall" could convey a sense of duty, but it won't for most.)
Nowadays, this is just a point of academic interest. Few of your readers are likely to spot that you've switched from "will" to "shall" (or vice versa) to convey a sense of importance or duty.

"Shall" Is Still Used in Questions

From what you've read so far, you might be getting the idea that "shall" is on its last legs as a word. You might be thinking it's hot on the heels of "whom" to reach the word graveyard where words like "hither" and "whence" have lain to rest. However, that's not accurate. "Shall" is alive and well when it comes to questions posed in the first person (i.e., with "I" and "we"). For example:
  • Shall I talk in a Scottish accent during the meeting?
  • What shall we talk about?
  • Was that the dog? Shall I open the window?

"Will" and "Shall" in Contractions

When talking or writing informally, you might not have to worry about whether to use "shall" or "will" because the contractions are likely to be the same.
Full VersionsContraction
I shall
I will
I'll
You shall
You will
You'll
He/She/It shall
He/She/It will
He'll / She'll / It'll
We shall
We will
We'll
You shall
You will
You'll
They shall
They will
They'll
This overlap does not occur with "will not" and "shall not" (the negative versions). The contraction for "shall not" is "shan't." The contraction for "will not" is "won't."
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

adverse or averse? affect or effect? Ms., Miss, or Mrs? avenge or revenge? bare or bear? can and may complement or compliment? dependant or dependent? discreet or discrete? disinterested or uninterested? e.g. or i.e.? envy or jealousy? imply or infer? its or it's? material or materiel? might and may poisonous or venomous? practice or practise? principal or principle? tenant or tenet? who's or whose? What are auxiliary verbs? What is the first person? What is the future tense? What are verbs? List of easily confused words