Part of growing up, I have been told, is learning your limitations.  I’ll buy into this. As a younger lad I was pretty well convinced that I could do anything, this being the credo that American children are indoctrinated with from birth.  Quickly, though, it became clear that this was not entirely true.  Early in elementary school, I learned that I was not able to play basketball, then learned as a result that I was not able to fit in.  But the beauty of learning about your limitations is that you can turn them to your advantage.  Whereas my more sport-adept classmates had to balance their other interests with the demands of popularity, my inability to do a lay-up meant that I had all the time in the world to pursue my other interests, like obsessively reading and re-reading atlases.

Learning that I was no Manute Bol is the reason that now I can answer 80% of the questions in the geography category in Genus I of Trivial Pursuit.  So that’s a fair trade.

In recent years I’ve come to grips with some other exciting limitations: I can’t stomach cilantro; I can’t speak tonal languages; I can’t stand pop music.  No matter how many of these limitations I find, it seems like every day brings a new one.  Yesterday’s was that I will never be a native user of shall.

This is not to say I never use shall; I do intermittently, and I have a fairly clear idea in my head of a few instances when one ought to use shall:

(1) We shall overcome.
(2) Shall we dance?
(3) You Shall Know Our Velocity!

Okay, that’s about it.  In my mind, shall has these three usages in American English.  The first, exhibited in (1), is a mix of will and ought to.  It’s a way of stating that a future event is inevitable and well-deserved.  The second meaning, as in (2), is a mix of should and will; here the question is both an inquiry as to whether it would be good to dance and as to whether we will actually do so.  (3) is a sort of poetic form of will; to me, will seems less good than shall here, but I can’t specify exactly why.  So it seems to me that in American English shall is a future form, like will, but with some added information that the action under discussion is destined to occur, deserves to occur, or is in some way poetic.

These three examples certainly don’t form a clear definition of shall, but they do form a fairly coherent outline of the word in American English.  I’d figured that this was a starting point from which I could eventually hammer out the far more complicated British shall.  Sure, I’d seen Fowler’s warning about learning shall‘s usage:

“It is unfortunate that the idiomatic use, while it comes by nature to southern Englishmen (who will find most of this section superfluous), is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it; and for them the section is in danger of being useless.”

Yet, buoyed by that “you can do anything” idea, I brazenly assumed I’d best the British shall. So I occasionally read about its usage, growing dismayed at the fact that I couldn’t understand the joke about the non-English speaker of English (variously portrayed as French, Scottish, or Irish) who was drowning and cried out “I will drown; no one shall save me!” and thus had his cries for help mistaken as a statement of suicide because he’d swapped will and shall.  (If anything, this further motivated me to learn shall, in case I ever found myself sinking into the Thames.)

But then, yesterday, in the course of other research, I came upon a book from 1900 that attempts to clarify the shall/will distinction by means of a diagram:

It was at this point that I decided to follow Fowler’s advice and leave shall to the English. Inspirational stories be damned, I’ve got better things to do with my life than muddle through this.

But luckily, I have it on good authority from native British English speakers that they’ve never known an American to use shall in the proper English way. So even if I had the tenacity to get a solid grasp of English shall, it would be of no use in American English. (I shall be misunderstood, no one will follow me?)  So, if you are a speaker of American English, your best bet is just to get a grasp on American shall and use that.

The good news, at least in American English, is that will usually works in place of shall.  If you find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure which to use, you can always err or the side of caution and choose will. Rarely will will lead you astray.

Summary: Unless you are already familiar with shall, you’ll save yourself a lot of bother by not even trying to learn to use it in the precise English way. You’re welcome to my rules of thumb: shall is a future form that expresses a certain destiny to the act; if you can’t decide between will and shall, go with will.