‘I will buy that radio if it's the last thing I do.” (collinsdictionary.com)

Will’ is “used as an auxiliary to express resolution on the part of the speaker,” says Collins and they separated this meaning from “used as an auxiliary to indicate willingness or desire.” Whereas OALD seems to put the former resolute expression into the latter sense of willingness. But can this meaning of OALD’s for 'will', “used for showing that somebody is willing to do something,” include strong determination in the Collins’s example: I will buy that radio (even) if it’s the last thing I do? Consulting OALD’s account for ‘willing,’ “not objecting to doing something; having no reason for not doing something,” I’m not quite sure if it can.


This overlaps a lot with "I'll call you when I get there", in terms of challenging the "strength" of "will".

Here are two pieces of culture for a start. Consider the Terminator's very famous "I'll be back":


(Interestingly enough, this particular English construct of "I'll" was hard for Arnold to say)

Listen also to Wayne's way of saying "She will be mine -- oh yes, she will be mine" in Wayne's World:


Indeed, it does sound rather determined to say:

I will buy that radio.

Not just determined, but robotic. It's such a stark declaration of intention; especially without the "I'll" contraction, that most people just don't talk like that unless they're acting or being funny. Most speakers are more indirect: "I'm planning on buying that radio someday" or "I'm looking at different radios, and I think this is the one I'll probably get" would be more comfortable.

But if you said:

I will buy that radio!

That could be completely joking. You could be with a friend at a store and find the ugliest and most outdated radio on the planet. The emphasis on THAT is to call out how ridiculous it is. Then, the "will" fades into the background completely; as you have no serious intent to buy anything whatsoever.

But can this OALD’s meaning for 'will', "used for showing that somebody is willing to do something," include strong determination in the Collins's example: I will buy that radio (even) if it’s the last thing I do? Consulting OLAD's account for 'willing,' "not objecting to doing something; having no reason for not doing something," I'm not quite sure if it can.

I will buy that radio doesn't need the "if it's the last thing I ever do", and actually adding that cliche line makes it sound like the speaker thinks the whole thing is a joke. "if it's the last thing I ever do" has really only been popularized by exaggerated and over-dramatic cartoon characters as from Looney Tunes; no one says it without intending to be funny.

Really you're dealing with a sentence that native speakers would tend to nuance in some way to avoid sounding robotic or weird in terms of the strength of intent you are asking about.

  • 2
    You’ve showed me not to read robotically but to read flexible on the contexts. However it’s not quite easy to read that way and so I stumble zigzagging along the stories that I can’t get nuances well. Thank you so much for your successive accounts and all the stuffs you've linked. – Listenever Sep 7 '14 at 14:56
  • @Listenever Glad to help. Yes, indeed the crossover of I will buy that radio if it's the last thing I (ever) do is that you would think it would be spoken by a cartoon robot! That's because the "I will buy" is very stilted yet determined, and the "if it's the last thing I ever do" is only said as a joke in cartoons. :-) – HostileFork says dont trust SE Sep 7 '14 at 15:04

Dictionaries (and linguists) grappling with a word like will, which has a very wide range of uses, employ a variety of strategies to distinguish different meanings, and you have to be careful not to import a definition intended for one context into a definition intended for a different context.

Moreover, dictionaries employ different strategies for ‘defining’ meaning. Note, for instance, that the OALD ‘definition’ of willing which you cite is cast in the long-established form of a paraphrase of the word, an expression which can be substituted for it (not objecting to..., having no reason for not...), while its ‘definition’ of will employs a form which has recently become very common in learners' dictionaries, speaking of the speaker’s purpose (used for showing that...).

Indeed, the new-fangled form of ‘definition’ might be taken a step further: the definition might cite the context and purpose without implying as OALD does that the use of will itself ‘signifies’ or ‘shows’ or ‘indicates’ the meaning. Modal verbs do not so much express an intended meaning as accommodate it: they allow this or that meaning to emerge from the entire utterance. CGEL’s discussion of volitional will (9.5.2, 192-4) is full of fine distinctions such as these:

With a 1st person subject, moreover, volition tends to trigger a further implicature of commitment—and you might ask Is that a promise? in order to get me to make the commitment explicit. [...] A strongly stressed will, especially with a 1st person subject, tends to convey determination. A closed interrogative, especially with a 2nd person subject, characteristically questions willingness and indirectly conveys a request.

My advice is that you consult dictionaries to become aware of the range of possible meanings; but in reading any given passage, consult the text itself to infer what meaning is implied.

  • I may be stranded between grappling each entry of a word written in dictionaries and inferring contextual meaning in story books. Both knowledge poor, I rush about in circles in vain. I need to remind your saying: “Read! read! read!” When I felt that I was poor in my own language, I’d read round 70 books each year for six years. When I finished that amount of them, I started to understand my language. – Listenever Sep 7 '14 at 21:41
  • It’s not that easy even to read my language faster than that speed. I can’t calculate how it would take to read that amount of foreign language. It’s only a work that needs time, I think. Thank you for your sayings. – Listenever Sep 7 '14 at 21:41
  • @Listenever. Quite right: there are no shortcuts. But the long way around is very enjoyable! – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 7 '14 at 21:59

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