Sunday, 31 May 2015

I shall/I will

I spend my life stumbling over the I will/I shall rule, getting it wrong, correcting myself. Do others?

I have a nagging suspicion that no one else gives a damn.

Is it really a rule? Some, such as Oliver Kamm, the sworn enemy of most rules, say not. For him what is said in practice is right in principle and, of course, he has good arguments for that position, which is essentially philosophical, not grammatical. All opinions are essentially philosophical and, as Nietzsche told us, all philosophy is disguised psychology. 

William James said
The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments
and this is true of the history of grammar too. Politics and philosophy are a means of self expression and so are both grammar and opinions about grammar.

This blogger agrees that the I will/I shall rule is bogus. So does the Economist, a paper I usually disagree with. Apparently it dates from 1653, which seems long ago enough to have made it a rule, but it would be easier if it were not one. I am beginning to have doubts.

The Oxford English Dictionary states the traditional rule
that shall is used with first person pronouns (i.e. I and we) to form the future tense, while will is used with second and third person forms (i.e. you, he, she, it, they). For example:

I shall be late.They will not have enough food.
However, when it comes to expressing a strong determination to do something, the roles are reversed: will is used with the first person, and shall with the second and third. For example:

I will not tolerate such behaviour. You shall go to the ball!
But goes on to say the two words are in practice interchangeable.

Can I relax and forget this putative rule? 

I bought a second-hand grammar at university while an undergraduate, not having been taught grammar, except I suppose at primary school, and I taught myself the rules, including the rule on 'that' and 'which'. I have completely forgotten that rule now, but I do remember that I found I had always instinctively used 'that' and 'which' correctly. This is not the case with 'will' and 'shall', which might mean the rule is now in desuetude. 

However, for emotional reasons, I do not want to admit this. Old laws are good laws. Usually.

The reason why I am blogging about this at all was my shock at getting an out of office message, from a British Ambassador, educated at Cambridge, a good middle-class university, saying
I will not be in the office until Tuesday.
I suppose, as I was shocked, on Mr. Kamm's principle that how people use language is how people should use language, my being shocked is self-validating and the rule must still exist. Is this logical? I am not completely sure.

I imagine that there are various definitions of a lake but I think that a lake is a body of water that is called a lake. I was told, when there, that the Sea of Galilee is a not a sea but a lake, but by my definition it is not a lake. I think the rule with rules is similar. A rule is something many people for a long time have considered a rule.  

It might, however, not be a good rule or a useful one. It might be one more honoured in the breach than in the observance or widely ignored. 

There might be rules that only apply on formal occasions, just as there are rules of protocol that only apply on formal occasions, occasions such as when one ends letters, 
I remain, sir, your faithful servant.
Or does no-one do that any longer? I see that in the Prince of Wales's correspondence, that the courts, at the Guardian's behest, disgracefully forced to be published, Andy Burnham, who wants to be elected leader of the Labour Party, ends his letters to the Prince 
I have the honour to remain, Sir, your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant.
Some people think that for a socialist to end a letter thus is risible, but I don't at all. I think it's correct, good manners, as 'Andy''s civil servants no doubt advised him.

In any case, with grammar as with protocol (are the two the same thing?), it's important to know the rules in order to know when and whether to break them.


  1. Another way of looking at it, well founded in Old English, is to think of 'shall' as connoting a greater or lesser degree of compulsion while 'will' connotes a greater or lesser degree of volition.
    "It must and it shall be spring in Pall Mall, when Bustopher Jones wears white spats"
    "Will you take this man to your lawful wedded husband? I will"
    (Haven't checked these references)

    1. I WILL be out of the office sounds wrong. But in Scotland not. 'I will drown and nobody shall save me' as the man said in his famous last words. Actually I always thought that joke schoolmasterly and unfunny.

    2. Yes, and of course in German a lake is a "See". I have noticed that you happily split infinitives in your blog, and I generally approve. What sounds natural or normal is generally a good guide though that will vary according to locality, generation, education etc. I'm still having to get used to "train station" for example

    3. Oh dear I split infinitives?

    4. Sorry, it was Hunter S Thompson, aged 20, third line of Careers Advice, "to seriously seek'. I presume he is an American.

    5. That split infinitive SCREETCHED.

    6. You are right to mention the Scots (or Scotch if you prefer). I sometimes had to persuade our young Australians in the office that what they thought of as bad English emanating from our Edinburgh office was in fact good Scottish. In Nottinghamshire we would be asked "shall you be back for dinner?" but dismissed this as dialectal. Not so with Scottish, American, Australian etc.

    7. What do you think of the ideas of Oliver Kamm, who writes for the Times, not the Guardian? He thinks "three less MPs" is good English, that what is said and understood is automatically good English and that my ‘claims about "incorrect" usage based on supposed rules of English grammar are factually mistaken.’ For someone who thinks many supposed rules are not rules he is very magisterial, not laisser-faire. He was referring to my article:

    8. For the most part I am inclined to think that this is not so much a rule as what Fowler sometimes called a superstition, like not beginning a sentence with 'and' or ending a relative clause with a preposition. I believe Tesco changed their notice from "five items or less" to "up to five items" not because they thought the former was wrong (it isn't) but because staff were becoming upset by customers who claimed that it was. Particularly where numerals are involved "less" often sounds idiomatic to my ear, as in the instance of one party having ten less MPs than another, but possibly without the numeral I would say fewer rather than less.

    9. I admire your broad-mindedness, truly. You even persuaded me that furore pronounced with two syllables was an acceptable alternative to the usual pronunciation. I hate false pedantry. Like people who correct you if you use ‘England’ to mean the UK or who pronounce data to rhyme with martyr. However when it comes to 'five items or less' up with this English I WILL not put.

    10. Curiously all our young Australians, educated but not pedantic, rhymed data with martyr.


    11. Those two 'rules' are superstitions, of course, and schoolmistressy superstitions but the less fewer rule I don't think is. Where do you stand on decimate and the horrid habit of calling people who dislike Israel but love Arabs anti-Semites?

    12. Kamm, preposterously, thinks decimate no longer means to kill one in ten.

    13. I find that deeply shocking - I suppose he thinks that meticulous no longer means timid.