“Shall” doesn’t mean what you think it means

Or more accurately: “shall” means many more things than you think.

Argument: Shall is antiquated, imprecise and has no place in our translations of rules, regulations, laws or other texts unless we are writing poetry, songs or bad translations of the Bible.

Supporting evidence: Legal style guides in both the UK and the US recommend not using shall since it can mean many different things and is the cause of more litigation than any other single word in legal texts, i.e., because it means many different things and can be interpreted in many different ways. The UK’s Office of the Parliamentary Counsel’s style guide and the US Congress style guide recommend against its use and provide alternatives.

Do lawmakers keep using it? Yes, but they are mostly old-school people who aren’t that interested in nitpicking and think “shall” makes them sound authoritative, much like people think writing in passive voice makes them sound like experts.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at this explanation by legal translator Rob Lunn:

Here is another way of thinking about it: Would you say to someone’s face “You shall be at work by 8:00” in the sense of an order? Of course not. You’d be lucky not to get punched. We don’t talk like that anymore and we don’t treat people like that anymore. Would you say, “Shall we go to lunch?”. Yes, I’d love to. So these are two different uses with two different meanings. The first is antiquated and sounds far too harsh to modern ears. The second is potentially charming. Neither should be used in writing outside of a quote and you won’t be using the first in speech since you might get punched.

But what about all those policy documents commanding staff to do things?

Easy. If it is a policy document, it says so at the top and you know this when you start reading. The authority and force are self-evident, so you can just use present tense, which is more pleasant, less wordy and more precis. Do this. Don’t do that. Turn in hours by the third Friday of the month. Shall serves no function of greater authority, even though that’s what many people assume.

Really, I’m open to counter arguments

After reading all this, I understand if you are skeptical that I am very open to hearing a vigorous defense of shall. But I know I may be too harsh in my judgement and have probably not considered all use cases. I really am eager for alternate takes. So please comment below or submit a counter argument for posting here.