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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Shall We Abandon Shall? | Bryan Garner, ABA Journal

After telling a cute, relevant story about learning contractions in elementary school, renowned language expert Bryan A. Garner gets to the meat of this article: the use and misuse of shall, mostly in legal documents.

He writes:
No American says shan’t [the abbreviation for shall not]. I had heard a television character use it—the very English Mr. French in the 1960s series Family Affair.
Nor do Americans use the positive form, shall, except in two expressions: We shall overcome and Shall we ... ? Otherwise, this modal verb isn’t really a part of normal American English.
Yet it's ubiquitous, Garner writes, in all kinds of legal documents, including the U.S. Constitution. He explains that in law school, students learn that shall means "mandatory," and may is "permissive."

Yet shall isn't used consistently and clearly in real legal life. Garner calls it a "chameleon-hued word." Depending on the legal writer, shall is used variously to mean should, will or even may.

Garner's column answers the headline of the article with a strong affirmative: yes! And he reports some good news, at least at the federal level:
With one exception, shall has now been purged from all four major sets of federal rules, including evidence.
I think Garner's preference is to use must instead of shall in most cases--or, when that word seems too domineering, to use will instead of shall. At least that's my preference for non-legal documents.

But Garner concludes:
My own practice is to delete shall in all legal instruments and to replace it with a clearer word more characteristic of American English: must, will, is, may or the phrase is entitled to.
BTW, Garner has written what I consider the most comprehensive and best contemporary guide to writing style and usage: Garner's Modern American Usage, now in its third edition. It also covers basic grammar, punctuation, spelling and idiomatic phrases.

This article is featured today (Aug. 23) in Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs--available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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