3. Wallis and ‘will/shall’

The next (chronologically) grammar on my bookshelf is Wallis, John (1653) Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae. While this went through many editions over the next century or so, and was apparently quite influential, it does not reach my top ten of grammars for two main reasons:

1. It is written in Latin. Apart from the fact that writing a book on English grammar in Latin  strikes me as perverse, my 50-year old schoolboy latin was hardly up to the task of decyphering this.

2. It is John Wallis who first publicly announced to the world (in Latin):  “The rule is… to express a future event without emotional overtones, one should say I shall, we shall, but you/he/she/they will; conversely, for emphasis, willfulness, or insistence, one should say I/we will, but you/he/she/they shall”.

To be fair to Johannis, many leading writers of the time still wrote their masterpieces in Latin, in order to reach an international audience of scholars. Also, One of Wallis’s aims was to prepare a work for foreigners wishing to learn English; to use an internationally understood language  to present his subject matter is understandable. And, finally, Wallis did move away from a Latin-influenced approach in his treatment of English grammar as  something to be studied in its own right. Unlike Bullokar, who claimed that English nouns had five cases, Wallis recognised that “substantives in English do not have different genders or cases”.

So far, so good. But for the shall/will distinction he shall be damned for all eternity (should that be will be damned?) This distinction, if it ever truly existed, was natural to only a minority of speakers of British English, but had become, by the end of the nineteenth century, one of the shibboleths of educated gentlemen. I remember being ridiculed at my would-be public school fifty years ago for using an I will instead of the prescribed I shall. Finally the system was beaten so thoroughly into me, that I used it ‘correctly’ – and still do today, unfortunately. I say ‘unfortunately’ because I work in the field of Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Students of mine who have been taught  from fossilised texts about the shall/will distinction are unimpressed when  I try to tell them that it is unimportant in the English of today – dammit, I use the distinction myself, so it must be correct.

So, back to the bookshelf, Johannis, and stay there till you rot.

ps: Don’t forget to visit my new website at www.gramorak.com. It already has a few articles on the English Verb, with more in the pipeline.

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