Where there shall be a will, there will be a shall

Flavors of future tense

by J. W. Rider

Engineering specifications cover a lot of ground. Not only do they detail precisely how a product is to be constructed, but they can also try to stretch the state of the art with a variety of feasible approaches. Of course, it would not be legally binding to require a specification that could not be achieved, but the specification can suggest that the engineer aim as high as possible. Were it not for a little editorial trick, it would be nigh impossible to separate what truly is required from what is only a suggestion.

The way it works is to put a couple of short sentences in the beginning of the specification. The exact wording varies from company to company, but one possible wording is as follows:

The use of the word "shall" indicates contractually binding intent.
The use of the word "will" indicates an example or simple intent.

Somewhere in the dim recesses of technological archives, the origin of including these caveats has been lost to us. On one hand, the two sentences would seem unnecessary. After all, anyone with a thorough understanding of the English language would interpret the use of "shall" and "will" correctly throughout the document. That the sentences need to be added at all seems completely redundant.

On the other hand, the pervasive use of these caveats has led some to confusion about what the rules for proper English are. Yes, English is an living, evolving, changing language. Very few understand all the rules. For the rest of us, we strive for a working consistency in our language. This is one of those cases where consistency results from simplifying rules not well understood.

It's not that the rules are beyond the intellectual capacity of the authors of engineering specification. Rocket science comes easily to them. But, let's face it. In comparison to the more esoteric aspects of English, rocket science is a snap.

Parts of speech

Everyone knows that words can be categorized as parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.

However, just to make matters more complicated, we also have different "inflections" of verbs: by voice, mood, tense, person, and number.

It doesn't stop there. Each of the inflections has its own particular styles.

Number can be singular and plural. Person can be first, second, or third. Yes, this IS person, not number! I know it sounds like numbers.

Verbs are not the only parts of speech that have number and person. Nouns have number and person as well, and matching of number and person between verbs and nouns is important. The other inflections don't require such matching. Instead, they add to the interpretation of the verb meaning.

Voice can be active or passive. It depends upon whether the associated noun is the actor or the thing being acted upon.

Mood can be indicative, imperative, or subjunctive. There are even subcategories for these.

Back to the future

Tense can be present, past, and future, and there are perfect varieties of these as well. However, the future tense that we're concerned about here. In general, the future tense is formed by using "will" or "shall" in front of the untensed verb.

The difference between "will" and "shall" is a case of certainty or intent about the future. Sometimes, we're interested in making casual statements about the future. If the future does not unfold the way we said, no problem. It's not as if we're sooth-sayers. If we were to make a more reliable statement we can add emphasis with either "will" or "shall".

It's trying to figure out whether to use "will" or "shall" where things really get complicated. Still, according to English purists, there's a "simple" rule that is all that needs to be applied. Well, at least the English purists think it simple:

For simple future tense (casual remarks
about what the future may or may not hold):
First person verbs are prefixed with shall:
"I shall..."
"We shall..."
Second/third person verbs are prefixed with will:
"You will..."
"They will..."

For determined future tense (where some party
will ensure the truth of the statement, no matter what):
First person verbs are prefixed with will:
"I will..."
"We will..."
Second/third person verbs are prefixed with shall:
"You shall..."
"They shall..."

So, there you have it. "Will" and "shall" can be used in the same way, albeit with the change of person. Unless you are familiar with the consistency that already exists in English language, you might miss the nuances of determination. Just in case, specifications add the two caveats about "shall" and "will", and they can get away with it because specifications are invariably written in the third person.

Exemplary proper usage

There are a few well-known examples that demonstrate the first person usage.

During World War II, General Douglas MacArthur escaped hurriedly from the Phillipines. However, he commissioned the printing of matchbook covers that proclaimed: "I will return!"

Despite Hollywood preferences for the phrase, "I do," the actual wedding vow response in most religious ceremonies is "I will."

Despite examples that clearly demonstrate the correct language, contemporary usage has left us somewhat at a disadvantage. One is not sure how to interpret the meaning when "shall" or "will" in connection for the first person (I, we).

As a suggestion, when an immediate response is required to a question, follow the example in the question. This is the wedding vow approach. Otherwise, reword the sentence to second/third person.

Of course, that brings to mind another story that I shall have to discuss at a later date.

Or, is that "I will"?

Webcrafted by J. W.
JWR 020604