The State of the Language: 'For the Ear Trieth Words, as the Mouth Tasteth Meat'


IT is my observation that the standard basic distinction between shall and will continues to be a good deal more generally alive in American popular speech than some learned commentators would have us believe. I testify that from Frenchman’s Bay to Gray’s Harbor I have heard shall and will colloquially used in ways that have the benediction of the formal grammarian. I hear the orthodox distinction made every day in Vermont rural speech, and made with the same unconsciousness by people of considerable schooling and people of next to none. Thus, I am disconcerted when in the fourth edition of The American Language I read: ‘To-day the distinction between shall and will has become so muddled in all save the most painstaking and artificial varieties of American that it may almost be said to have ceased to exist,’ and I search the context to find out precisely what Mr. Mencken means. He means, it transpires, simply that violations of the standard practice are so extremely common as to be ‘encountered in the United States every day’ — an unquestionable fact. But observance of the standard practice can be encountered every day, too. Mr. Mencken may be using a painstaking and artificial diction when he ends his preface: ‘I shall be grateful, as in the past, for corrections and additions sent to me.’ Not so my neighbor who says: ‘Next year I shall grow my corn in ground that ain’t been used for three-four year,’ or my other neighbor who says: ‘We wasn’t neither of us give no schooling by my folks; I shall be good and sore about it to the day of my death, and so will my brother,’ or the odd-job man who sends this note: —

Freind Mr.—
I am sorrie I shall not be able to be comeing today, we have Company comeing.

Obviously a comprehensive treatment of shall-should, will-would is out of the question here. The idiomatic use of these auxiliaries is prohibitively involved in niceties, options, quarrels between principles equally valid, considerations of courtesy and modesty, and arbitrary conventions, and our space would not house even the skeleton of a bibliography. For a canonical and reasonably full statement, see The King’s English, by the brothers Fowler, or the relevant entries in the vocabulary of the New International Dictionary. The most that these paragraphs can do is to state one central and guiding principle and one cautionary footnote, which, between them, are capable of heading off a good half of the more common vagaries.

The principle I give in the helpfully terse form it takes in one of the several unpublished examinations of shall and will kindly put at my disposal by their authors. Mr. J. R. Van Pelt of Hartford, Connecticut, says in substance: Determination from within the subject requires will-would; determination from outside the subject requires shall-should. Examples: Will you not do what I ask? (Your determination, from within.) What shall I do with the duplicate copy? (Determination to be supplied by another, from without.) How shall he cut it, without e’er a knife? (Determination by circumstance, from without.) Whosoever will may come. (Determination from within.) What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? (Determination by moral law, from without.) Boys will be boys. (From within.) Shall we scrap ‘shall’? (Decision imposed by exterior facts.) You shall not be the loser. (Another’s promise to you: determination from without.) How should I know? (Not my determination.) What would he do in my place? (His determination.) The chief exception is the courtesy form generally observed in commands, as ‘You will report at the office immediately,’ where the determination really comes from without but by a polite fiction is taken as coming from within. Otherwise our law truly covers the generality of cases of the so-called volitional forms, which are a good deal more intricate and difficult than the forms classified as expressing simple futurity. To have assimilated this law is to have the battle of the auxiliaries more than half won.

And the supplementary warning, too often omitted from official discussions, is merely this: Do not express volition by the choice of auxiliary when volition is implicit in the main verb or in the locution as a whole. We say, ‘I would not live alway,’ but ‘I should not wish to live alway’; ‘I will see you at any time,’ but ‘I shall be glad to see you at any time.’ Here, as in many another province of language, common sense and usage combine to recommend that the thing once adequately said shall (determination from without) not be said twice.


CANNOT BUT. A member of the Department of Economics at the University of California says: ‘We live out here, marooned on the far fringes of civilization, and we crave the enlightenment that comes from the East (ex oriente lux).’ Alas, this is ‘meant sarcastic,’ as the burden of his inquiry shows: —

Can you do anything to decide whethercan andcannot mean the same thing ? In the DecemberAtlantic one writer says cannot but and anothercan but — with exactly the same connotation, that there is only one possible line of conduct.


I defend the Atlantic and doubt the discrepancy. To the best of my knowledge can but and cannot but are legitimately different ways of saying slightly different things, or the same thing with different emphases. ‘I can but submit’ says that I have to submit in spite of myself; that is, there is nothing else for me to do. ‘I cannot but submit’ says that I have to renounce every other possibility than submission. One form indicates the lack, the other the choice, of an alternative. The pity is that with three eligible locutions at our service — can but submit, cannot but submit, and cannot help submitting — half of us persistently resort to the mongrel mixture, cannot help but submit.

MAROONED. Mr. J. F. Sabine Meachem of the New York State Board of Social Welfare would challenge Mr. Mahaffy’s use of marooned above; for he has written from Syracuse to question my precisely similar use of it in the December Atlantic:

I had always associated the word marooned with being set adrift in an open boat and landing on a desert island. It would appear that this is approximately correct, as the dictionary definition given is ‘To put ashore and abandon (a person) on a desolate coast or island.’

Assuredly the provenance and denotation of to maroon are nautical; but shall we make no concession whatever to metaphor? May not a commercial enterprise as well as a ship be launched, a financier as well as a helmsman sail too close to the wind, and a government as well as a vessel go on to the rocks? Mr. Meachem objects to my marooning persons in a desert: would not his logic have cut off at its source that splendid metaphor whereby the camel is the ship of the desert?