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shall and will - the difference

The Quick Answer

When forming the future tense, you can get away with using just will and ignoring shall. However, if you need to placate some grammar pedants, then you should use shall when the subject is I or we. (Note: When posing questions using I or we, you should use shall. E.g., Shall we dance?).

If you wanted to convey that something must happen (typically out of a sense of duty), then you can swap shall for will (and vice versa), but this nuance is very likely to go unnoticed by most of your readers.

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 (more on that below), 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.

Forming the Future Tense with Will and Shall
(Traditional Rules)

The traditional rules for forming the future tense with will and shall are:

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, it is okay to use will in every instance.

Unfortunately, this topic doesn't end there.

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, in the land of pedants, 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. Very 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. Here they are:

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.
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