Writing Solutions | The Use of “Shall” in Normal and Legal English
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The Use of “Shall” in Normal and Legal English

The Use of “Shall” in Normal and Legal English

Shall is a strange, little word which is used in different contexts and can cause some confusion, particularly for non-native speakers.

The Use of Shall in Normal English

Shall was originally used for the first person (I and we) form of the future tense.  We said:”I (or we) shall go”, but “you (he, she, they) will go”.

Today, shall is only rarely used to indicate the future in this way, but it is very useful in two contexts:

1. When I suggest an action to someone else that I have already decided I want to take.

Eg: Shall we have some wine with our meal? 

This indicates that I want wine.  This is different from: Do you want wine with our meal?  Here I am giving no clue about whether or not I want wine.

Eg: Shall I open the window, as it’s hot in here?

I want to open the window, but I am being polite and checking that you agree.

This use of shall is only for “I” and “we”.

2. To show strong emphasis, normally when speaking.  We use audible stress as we say the word shall in this context.

Eg: Even if you won’t go to see my parents, I shall.

The Use of Shall in Legal English

We have all seen contracts with numerous sentences containing the word shall.    However, there is a modern tendency in contract writing to avoid what a well-known lawyer and expert on “Plain English”, Richard Wydick (*) has called “the troublemaker shall”.  Why is this?

According to Wydick and many others, shall is dangerous because it can have more than one meaning and is therefore ambiguous.  It can imply obligation, but can also be used with a future meaning.

Eg: The defendant shall file an answer within thirty days.  (Obligation)

Eg: The lease shall terminate after 1 year.  (Future)

Since legal documents should only contain words with one precise meaning, in Australian and many other law schools, students are now taught to find a better equivalent for shall including must or should (for obligation) and will (for the future).

* Plain English for Lawyers, Richard C. Wydick