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.
- Film title: Shall We Dance?
- Folk wisdom: This too shall pass.
- Song title: We Shall Overcome
- TV documentary on the Native American experience: We Shall Remain
- Common opener: Let’s get started, shall we?
Tip 2: Call attention to contexts and help students understand the level of formality in each one.
- From the U.S. Constitution. Article 1, Section 1. All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
- Speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.: We Shall Overcome
- “We shall see about that.” Line from Anne of Green Gables, set in early twentieth-century Canada. (Note the time period.)
Tip 3: Call attention to varieties of Englishes and help students form conclusions about how common shall is among different speakers of English.
- “What time shall we have dinner?” Line from an article “No Kidding: Diary of a Child-free Couple” in the London Times, July 11, 2009.
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.
- Wikipedia covers etymology and modern usage.