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English Modal Verbs: Will and Shall

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/17/2012

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that express modality, the expression of possibility, necessity, and contingency. This article offers the most frequent definitions of the modals will and shall with examples to illustrate use. Also provided is a printable reference sheet of the definitions.

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    Will

    The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definitions of the modal verb will:

    1. Desire to, wish to, have a mind to (do something); often also implying intention.
    2. Expressing voluntary action or conscious intention directed to the doing of what is expressed by the principal verb.
    3. Expressing natural disposition to do something and hence habitual action.
    4. Expressing potentiality, capacity or sufficiency.
    5. As auxiliary of the future tense with implication of intention or volition.
    6. As auxiliary of future expressing a contingent event, or a result to be expected, in a supposed case or under particular conditions (with the condition expressed by a conditional, temporal, or impersonal clause, or otherwise implied).

    The modal verb will expresses futurity including decisions, predictions, intentions and promises. For example:

    • The train will arrive at noon tomorrow. (The train arrives in the future at noon tomorrow.)
    • She will buy a new outfit for the party. (She has decided to buy a new outfit for the party.)
    • It looks like it will rain tonight. (The prediction is that it rains tonight.)
    • The doctor will call you in the morning. (The doctor intends to call you in the morning.)
    • I will mow the lawn tomorrow. (I promise to mow the lawn tomorrow.)

    The modal verb will expresses commands. For example:

    • You will clean up your room this evening. (I command you to clean up your room this evening.)
    • You will be nice to your little brother. (I command you to be nice to your little brother.)
    • You will stop chewing on your sleeves. (I command you to stop chewing on your sleeves.)

    Will thirdly expresses suggestions. For example:

    • You will want to visit the museum. (It is suggested that you visit the museum.)
    • He will want to put the turkey in first. (It is suggested that he put the turkey in first.)
    • You will want to change before dinner. (It is suggested that you change before dinner.)

    The modal verb will fourthly expresses offers. For example:

    • He will help. (He offers to help.)
    • My cousin will babysit. (My cousin offers to babysit.)
    • I will pick up the pie for you. (I offer to pick up the pie for you.)

    Will expresses requests. For example:

    • Will you open the window? (It is requested that you open the window.)
    • Will you get the phone? (It is requested that you answer the phone.)
    • Will you please be seated? (It is requested that you be seated.)

    Note that there is overlap in the meanings of the modal verb will. For example, the use of the modal will in You will clean up your room this evening expresses a command but also implies futurity.

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    Shall

    The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definitions of the modal verb shall:

    1. Indicating what is appointed or settled to take place.
    2. In commands or instructions.
    3. Expressing the speaker's determination to bring about (or, with negative, to prevent) some action, event, or state of things in the future, or (occasionally) to refrain from hindering what is otherwise certain to take place, or is intended by another person.
    4. Used in questions to which the expected answer is a command, direction, or counsel, or a resolve on the speaker's own part.
    5. Used (after a hypothetical clause or an imperative sentence) in statements of a result to be expected from some action or occurrence.
    6. In clause expressing the object of a promise, or of an expectation accompanied by hope or fear.

    The modal verb shall also expresses futurity including decisions, predictions, intentions and promises. For example:

    • We shall have finished the project tomorrow morning. (We promise to have finished the project tomorrow morning.)
    • It shall snow tomorrow. (It is predicted to snow tomorrow.)
    • I shall buy a new hat. (I decided to buy a new hat.)

    The modal verb shall secondly expresses suggestions and offers. For example:

    • Shall we go for ice cream? (I suggest we go for ice cream.)
    • Shall I open a window? (I am offering to open a window.)
    • Shall I finish dinner for you? (I am offering to finish dinner for you.)

    The modal verb shall expresses commands including obligation, prohibitions and threats. For example:

    • You shall not say such things. (You are obligated not to say such things.)
    • Students shall not drink. (Students are prohibited from drinking.)
    • All employees shall wash their hands. (It is commanded that all employees wash their hands.)

    Note that, although the meanings of shall overlap considerably with the meanings of will, shall is much more common in British English than in American English, particularly in the first person.

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    Printable Download

    For a printable reference sheet of the definitions of the modal verbs will and shall, please download English Modal Verbs Definitions Reference Sheet.

References

Semantics and Pragmatics of English Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are difficult to define because of the because of the wide range of pragmatic uses of modal auxiliaries. This series provides some of the most frequent meanings of the nine English modals—can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would—through definitions and examples.
  1. English Modal Verbs: Can, Could, May, Might, Must, Shall, Should, Will, and Would
  2. English Modal Verbs: Can and May
  3. English Modal Verbs: Will and Shall
  4. English Modal Verbs: Could and Might
  5. English Modal Verbs: Would
  6. English Modal Verbs: Must and Should

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