A colleague of mine uses an out-of-office email message that reads something like, “I shall be out of the office until Monday, October 14, and will respond then.” She’s a rare exception these days. Almost nobody distinguishes between shall and will anymore. In my own case, although I understand the difference, I’d feel too self-conscious and stuffy using shall correctly. That’s where contractions come in handy: if I write, “I’ll be out of the office until Monday, October 14 . . .,” I don’t have to deal with the now virtually extinct difference between shall and will.
Why, then, would anyone be concerned about this distinction? In my own case, I need to be aware of it in order to understand texts that were written when the distinction was still current. A writer using shall instead of will in certain instances may mean something entirely different from what we, today, would assume he means. Let’s back up to an explanation and then look at an example of how knowing the difference informs the reader’s understanding of a statement.
Historically, shall goes with the first person—“I” or “we”—and will goes with the second person—“you”—and third person—“he,” “she,” “they.” Hence, “I shall let you know about Friday” and “He will let me know about Friday.” The complication comes in when either shall or will gets switched from one person to another. If I say, “I will let you know about Friday,” I’m being emphatic by using the will with the first person, “I.” Perhaps you’ve doubted my word; maybe you’ve just said to me, “Oh, yeah, I’ll just bet you’ll let me know about Friday.” So I push back, willfully, to effect of, “You can bet your bottom dollar I’ll get back to you, buddy.”
Similarly, if I write, “He shall get back to me about Friday,” using the auxiliary (“helping”) verb, shall, that would normally go with the first person, the intent is, again, emphatic, possibly even coercive. Maybe “he” has sent a messenger to tell me that “he” probably won’t be able to get back to me by Friday, in which case I object. “He’d better get back to me by Friday, or else!”
Now for the so-what? factor. In the last scene of Shakespeare’s play Henry V, the titular character has conquered France for Britain and is pretending to woo the French king’s daughter, Katherine, to be his wife. I say “pretending” because, in the negotiations leading to the treaty between France and England, Katherine has been Henry’s “capital demand.” She’s already his property, so wooing her is rather beside the point. Still, he’s trying to put a benign face on having brutishly won her in battle, so he plays the courtier with her. Yet his will to dominate her and France, as in war, comes through in his language—one sentence in particular. When the Princess expresses doubt that her father will be pleased by her marriage to Henry, he responds, “Nay, it will please him well, Kate; it shall please him, Kate.” Today’s reader may glide right over that shift from “will” to “shall,” missing Henry’s implication: “I’m the victor here. Your father’s gonna like your marrying me even if he doesn’t like it.”