Shall/Will (*Off Topic*: English Language History) (Was RE: "May " and "Might" in purpose clauses ...

From: Stevens, Charles C (
Date: Mon Oct 18 1999 - 15:00:43 EDT

On 16 October 1999 at 5:14AM, Carl W. Conrad reminisced:

<<The distinctions between different usage of modal auxiliaries in English
have been eroding considerably over the decades. In my opinion your
confusion ... is not unrelated to another
obsolescent usage of the auxiliary verbs "shall" and "will" to convey the
distinction between a strong volitional assertion and simple futurity. I
was taught as standard English grammar (half a century ago) that to express
simple futurity one uses "shall" in the first person, "will" in the second
and third persons: "I SHALL go" but "you WILL go" and "he/she/it will go"
BUT if one says "I WILL go" or "you SHALL go" or "he/she/it SHALL go" what
is expressed is firm intention--strong volition.>>

This particular rule was the subject of some discussion in my Historical
Linguistics classes back in the mid-1960's, whose memories your comment
inspired me to dust off.

While the rule was indeed a "sine qua non" of cultured English, particularly
British English, I was told in these classes that the rule itself was
invented out of whole cloth, if I recall right by the author of an English
grammar who apparently wanted to make a name for himself. There are no
recorded instances in literature prior to the publication of his grammar,
and no evidence that this rule was part of spoken English (formal or
otherwise) before he came up with the rule.

The author in question did not succeed, at least in my case, in making a
name for himself, for I can't remember his name. If I recall right, though,
he was an Anglican Bishop, and the English grammar he wrote promulgating
this rule as a requirement of proper English was published sometime in the
1675-1725 era, as I dimly remember it.

<<It's quite clear that this distinction that I was taught is essentially
obsolete now, and my guess is that it was already obsolescent when I was
taught it as a child.>>

You could reasonably say that. You could also say it was obsolete from the
moment it was first "described", since until that point the only place it
applied was in the mind of said Bishop, if my professors were correctly

<<We now use "will" for all three persons as an auxiliary with the
infinitive to express purpose. ...>>

Not exactly a new practice ...

        -Chuck Stevens

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