Misuse of wordsI recently read some legal documents and technical standards that reminded me how much I hate the word shall. Dictionary definitions of shall include:

  • must
  • will
  • can
  • should
  • intends to

Why would anyone use such an ambiguous verb in documents that are supposed to give clear guidance? Look for shall in the English section of a foreign language dictionary. You won’t find it there because it is too difficult to translate. If you write for readers with English as a second language, or you want to write English that is easy to translate, never use shall.

Causing Confusion

Back in the middle of the last century, when I was in grade school, shall was the future, first person, singular and plural form of the verb “to be”: I shall, we shall.  Shall is now considered by wordsmiths like me to be obsolete and confusing. I tremble to think that writers of standards are being intentionally vague by relying on shall.
For example, if a person doesn’t like the requirement denoted by shall, then shall means should. If they believe in the requirement and think it should be mandatory then shall means must. Read any standard or legal document carefully and you’ll notice that shall often also means will. Confusing words such as this should never be used in technical documents and standards.

Standards to Avoid Confusing Words

The US congress passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 with bipartisan support and Obama signed it into law in October of 2010. The federal government’s style guide for Plain English is called Federal Plain Language Guidelines. Plain English forbids the use of shall. This style guide is saving the feds millions of dollars, formerly needed to clear up confusion caused by typical bureaucratic writing. All the cabinet-level departments now have Plain-English evangelists, who train Plain English writing.
One of the cornerstones of Plain English is the death and burial of the verb shall. How often do you speak the verb shall when giving instructions? When writing, if you mean must, write must. If you mean should, write should. If you mean will, write will.
Forget about shall.

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