5. More on shall/will

As readers of this blog are only too aware, the shall/will problem is a hobby horse of mine. In my fourth post I quoted from that ‘supremely well qualified’ former secondary school headmaster and teacher of English, Cedric Astle BA [Hons]:

The two verbs, ‘I will’  (indicating determination) and ‘I shall’ (futurity), are often confused, sometimes with amusing results (e.g. the well-known sentence: I will drown and nobody shall save me!’ attributed to a foreign student, out of his debt in both the river and his English grammar.)

That hoary story is supposedly amusing because the student was conveying the message (according to people like Mr Astle) that his intention/desire was to drown, and that he placed an obligation on others not to stop him. What he should have said was, “I shall drown, and nobody will save me,” conveying the message that his death by drowning was imminient, and that there were no signs of anybody about to save him.

Actually, of course, most onlookers would not have understood the shall/will difference, and would have clearly understood what he intended to say – though they might have wondered why he didn’t shout a simple “Help”

In The Groundwork of English Grammar (1954), Frederick T Wood, BA, PhD, attempted to reduce the instructional matter to a minimum. However, in the Preface he wrote, “The one exception to this is the chapter on will and shall, where, owing to the confusion which seems to reign in the minds of pupils, and often, it is to be feared, in the minds of even educated adults as well, a fuller treatment seemed desirable”. Over half a century ago, it seems,  even educated adults were confused by the shall/will situation.

In the fuller treatment referred to, Dr Wood explained why: “Until some two hundred years ago ” [i.e. about 1750] “practice varied a good deal, so that the position was rather chaotic.” Wood in effect admitted that the system he was explaining was not a natural phenomenom in early English. He went on on: “about the middle of the eighteenth century, it settled down to a recognised system which all educated people sought to use and which therefore came to be regarded as ‘correct’ and any variation from it as incorrect.” So, all educated people, a tiny minority of the population at that time, sought to use an unnatural system which was ‘recognised’  by a handful of self-appointed experts, such as Lowth (1762) and Murray(1795).

Wood then wrote some 3,000 words to explain three conjugations, Subjective Volition (will), Objective Volition (shall), andFuture Tense (shall/will). In his conjugations, he included the forms thou shalt and thou wilt. One wonders if he imagined them to be still in common use in 1954. Poor Wood had to resort to some tortuous explanations in his attempts  to present a logical system, and made some statements which, even half a century ago, must have sounded extreme to most native speakers, for example: “It is just nonsense to say’I will be sixteen in June’, since no question of determination or willingness is involved”. Even Wood had to add a section on “anomalies in the use of the Future Tense”.

A stream of self-appointed experts from Wallis (1653) onwards decided that the ‘future tense’ in English was formed with the auxiliary verb ‘shall’ for the first person singular and plural and ‘will’ for all other persons. Generations of pupils were forced to learn this unnatural rule and, even today, some writers still believe that deviation from the rule is incorrect.

But then between 10% and 40% (depending on the poll) of Americans believe that the heavens, earth and all life were created by God during six 24-hour days between 5,500 and 10,00 years ago.

I expect a few people genuinely believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.


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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One Response to 5. More on shall/will

  1. gramorak says:

    Hi, jareksteliga

    Unfortunately I have been very busy on two forums, and I have neglected this blog. I also allowed gramorak.com to isappear when I wasn’t looking. I intend now to put some of the articles from that site here to keep them available.

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