How can I compare shall be with will in the following sentence? I mean, what time does the shall be refer to, relative to the will?

... that 27 [of 930] ministers die yearly, 18 of them leave Widows, 5 of them Children without a Widow, 2 of them who leave Widows, leave also Children of a former Marriage, under the Age of 16; and when the whole Number of Widows shall be complete, 3 Annuitants will die, or marry, leaving Children under 16.

(Robert Wallace, as quoted in Niall Fergusson's The Ascent of Money)


3 Answers 3


In traditional British grammar, the rule is that will should only be used with second and third person pronouns (you; he, she, it, they). With first person pronouns (I and we), the "correct" verb to talk about the future is shall.

"..and when the whole Number of Widows(they) shall be complete.."

Also, the style of the narrative suggest a condition marked by different words (shall and will). Something like saying "..and when the whole Number of Widows would be completed..(condition)..3 Annuitants will die"

I hope it helps!

  • That looks archaic; a lot more than 100 years old, at a guess. Either way, the meaning of "when the whole Number of Widows shall be complete" is exactly the same as "… is complete" Sep 18, 2016 at 23:52
  • @Robbie: The quote is a lot more than 100 years old. It's from 1743, to be exact. Oct 25, 2016 at 22:51

I did my research and found "certainly will" is one of the meanings of "shall".

I, for one, think that this one fits in your sentence. My reflections: we are speaking of something that we are not sure if will happen but at the same time we have enough data to expect it.

I see this sentence as a prediction that would be read like this: ...and when the whole Number of Windows will certainly be complete, 3 Annuitants would die, or marry...

Cambridge Dictionary:

Shall modal verb (certainly will). Formal or old-fashioned used to say that something certainly will or must happen, or that you are determined that something will happen: Don't worry, I shall be there to meet the train. The school rules state that no child shall be allowed out of the school during the day, unless accompanied by an adult. You shall go to the ball, Cinderella.


Where it says

..and when the whole Number of Widows shall be complete, 3 Annuitants will die..

it's intending to say

..and by the time the whole number of Widows becomes known for certain, 3 Annuitants will die..

They use the phrase "shall be" rather than "is" in part because they're making a prediction; they're talking about something that hasn't happened yet. (They're basing their prediction on what has happened in the past, but they're making a prediction, nonetheless.)

They use the phrase "shall be" rather than "will be" because they're preferring an older and more formal style, and maybe to reduce the number of times they use the word "will" in the same sentence.

At the time and place when and where this was written, I believe, as another contributor mentions, the word "shall" may have carried a connotation of certainty and finality that the word "will" didn't quite; so they're basically saying

"By the time we actually know for sure how many Widows were left, 3 Annuitants will have died."

I would say that even in modern usage, even in America, the word "shall" still carries a slightly greater degree of certainty and finality than the word "will." But it's not commonly used, and it sounds kind of old and formal.

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