Sunday, 3 October 2010

Will, Shall and Mornington Crescent

Volumes, tomes and libraries have been written on the correct use of will and shall. So I shall keep this short (as the film archivist once said). I was in Mornington Crescent tube station yesterday, waiting for the lift (elevator, if you're American) to raise me to superterranean liberty.

A voice, one of those rather too clear female voices that machines always have, said:

Lift number two shall be the next lift.

And it didn't sound right at all. It's not that I was concentrating. I wasn't. I was guilelessly clutching my suitcase, my mind its habitual blank. But my first thought was that it was a spell. It sounded as though the voice were trying to make lift number two the next lift, as though it were an imperative, as though Harry Potter were pointing his wand and willing that lift to come and get me.

Lift number two shall be the next lift.

In grammar, as in buttoning, nothing reveals more than a mistake. I think that my misunderstanding reveals something of the distinction between will and shall. Shall suggests what should happen, it expresses a human hope or order. Thou shalt not kill. If a weatherman were to say 'It shall rain tomorrow', it would sound wrong, because will or going to are used for such predictions. Similarly 'You will not kill' does not sound like a command, merely a statement of fact or murderous inadequacy.

Anyway, Fortune smiles on the confused, because in speech we usually contract both words to 'll.

The confused should follow this link.


  1. I rather like the Irish substitution of will for shall, as in "will I open another bottle of wine?"

    By the way, pro-tip: it's quicker to take the stairs than the lift at Morningon Crescent.

  2. Not with a heavy suitcase that you've already dragged from Lambeth.

  3. In grammar, as in buttoning, nothing reveals more than a mistake.

    Worthy of Wilde, Inky!

  4. I'm not sure I ever say 'shall'... unless singing: 'What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor'

    (Love the ISIHAC clip - thanks for sharing!)