Let’s Talk about that Lesser Used Modal Verb, Shall We?

Every so often I get asked by students about the modal verb shall. It seems like its mention in U.S.-published grammar books is little more than a brief note tacked on to the main presentation. As a result, I feel inclined to remark that in American English the use of shall is very limited, and I avoid spending too much time explaining its use. But then I usually encounter a real-world example of this modal and wonder if always downplaying its use is a wise course of action.

The fact is although the use of shall is not common in everyday situations, the verb still exists in American English. Furthermore, in today’s global world, the communication English language learners will participate in is not restricted to one kind of English. Through literature, songs, online articles, international acquaintances, and more, our learners will encounter a variety of Englishes. Hearing the use of a modal verb they never learned about in class will raise some questions.

So what’s the answer? While I don’t necessarily see the need for an entire class devoted to the use of shall, I do think it’s worth including the verb in a number of lessons, for example, on modal verbs (obligation and invitation), tag questions, and formal/ business writing.

Tip 1: Provide real-world examples and let students identify the meaning and use of the verb.

Tip 2: Call attention to contexts and help students understand the level of formality in each one.

Tip 3: Call attention to varieties of Englishes and help students form conclusions about how common shall is among different speakers of English.

Tip 4: Provide one or two good dictionary entries on shall so that students can clarify and solidify their understanding.

  •  YourDictionary.com lists five clear and simple uses along with examples. Here’s just one: (usage #3) “Used in the statements of law or regulations. The fine shall not exceed $200.”
  • The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English  lists four concise uses. It is careful to note which are common in spoken or formal English and which one is more common in British English.

Tip 5: Have a source that you can refer to so that you can more easily answer students’ questions.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Chiew says:

    I’m not sure how uncommon shall is in AmE, but in BrE, there are cases where shall cannot be replaced with or preferred over will. When I was younger, I used to use it more often, especially when I wanted to sound more formal or poetic. I used to write poetry and certainly, imho, shall sounds much better than will. Could you imagine Bob Dylan singing ‘I will be released’ or, as in your example, Martin Luther saying, ‘We will overcome’? Anyway, I digress.

    I think one of the reasons why shall is used less often now is the increase in informality in usage and in abbreviating to ‘We’ll, they’ll’, etc. Certainly in formal and legal usage, ‘shall’ is still used.
    You shall received the balance in due course.
    The Court shall have authority to recall the witness.

    Also, in offering help and suggestions, we prefer shall.
    We’ll say ‘Shall we have some lunch?’, and not ‘Will we have some lunch?’
    Also, you’ll hear, ‘Shall I open the wine?’ and not ‘Will I open the wine?’
    Or ‘Shall we go visit James?’ or ‘Let’s go visit James, shall we?’

    Would the Americans use will in all the cases I’ve mentioned?

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Yes, once upon a time, I think even Americans observed the difference between SHALL and WILL, with SHALL being used with I and WE to express a future action. The use of SHALL to make a promise or threat in a formal context is still practiced in the U.S., though I think WILL is becoming more acceptable. SHALL is used in legal documents/ contracts, but I read how one lawyer is dismayed over its misuse and overuse by his peers.

      As for invitations/ suggestions, we use SHALL sometimes, but often find other ways to extend the offer:
      Shall I open the wine?
      Would you like me to open the wine?
      How about we open the wine?
      Let’s open the wine, all right?
      Would you care for some wine? (Opening it is implied.)

  2. Chiew says:

    Yes, most do the same re the wine offer these days. I personally lament the gradual disappearance of shall, but then I’m a touch old fashioned in that sense! ;-P

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