'I will drown and nobody shall save me!' cried the man who had fallen into the canal two hundred years ago.

I am wondering what he would be crying if he fell in the canal today.

  • 4
    Please provide a link unless you made that up.
    – Lambie
    Nov 19 at 18:36
  • 1
    The phrase is an archaic joke, about grammar.
    – Fattie
    Nov 20 at 13:34

5 Answers 5


There is no 'modern version'. The point of the joke is that I will used to be regarded as expressing resolution (it famously occurs in the Book of Common Prayer marriage service) and you shall as a command or a promise, so the man got his verbs wrong. In calling for help, he made it sound as though he wanted to drown!

We don't make these distinctions today, so the joke doesn't work. Compare this.

  • I wouldn’t say we “don’t make these distinctions today” as such. For will, it’s true there isn’t much distinction left: it’s used for both plain future and resolution (though emphasis is usually required for the latter in the first person). But for shall, there is still a stronger person-based distinction: ‘you shall’ is virtually always a command or promise, rather than plain future, whereas ‘I shall’ can be either (but I would say most frequently just plain future). Nov 21 at 12:05
  • @JanusBahsJacquet If you'd said that 100 years ago, I've have been right behind you but today, I suggest hardly 5% of native speakers would recognise any difference between 'shall' and 'will' except that to them, 'shall' might seem archaic. Nov 21 at 22:40
  • @Robbie I sincerely doubt that. I rarely hear shall outside the first person, but will all the time. An Ngram of “[I shall ~ I will ~ I’ll] have to” shows that in the written BrE corpus, it was shall > ’ll > will until around 1993, then ’ll > shall > will until 2016, since when shall has been the least common option. Substituting you instead of I, conversely, shall basically flatlines the whole way through. ‘I shall (not)’ grams far higher than ‘you shall (not)’ throughout, whereas ‘I will (not)’ and ‘you will (not)’ are on par. This all matches my experience. Nov 21 at 22:52
  • @Robbie And of course in questions, the difference is far stronger: “Shall I do the washing up?” is a suggestion to help; “Will I do the washing up?” is a (somewhat unusual) question about the future; “Will you do the washing up?” is a request for help; and “Shall you do the washing up?” is so strange that it barely makes any sense at all. (Even more starkly, “Shall we?” and “Will we?” are completely incomparable.) Nov 21 at 22:55
  • @JanusBahsJacquet What did you doubt? Of course you hear 'shall' rarely but 'will' all the time, in- or outside the first person anywhere else. That's precisely why I Commented that if you'd said that 100 years ago, I've have been right behind you but today, hardly 5% of native speakers would recognise any difference between 'shall' and 'will' except that to them, 'shall' might seem archaic. Nov 24 at 22:27

The man has got it wrong (which is the point: he would have been rescued if his grammar was correct). In the first person (according to the grammar books) "I shall" is used for future, unless expressing intention, promise, obligation or desire. But this is reversed in the second or third person. So "I will drown and no one shall save me." gives the intention to commit suicide. But if he has just fallen in, he should say

I shall drown, and no one will save me.

In modern English, "will" is used in all cases, and is normally reduced when used with pronouns. So a literal rephrasing would be.

I'll drown, and no one will save me.

Note that there is no error in using "I shall drown". It is still correct grammar.

  • Crikey, James… I wish I'd grasped that more clearly, and I wonder whether more than about 1-2% of people today understand any of it? Nov 20 at 21:10
  • 1
    As a curmudgeonly pedant, I feel the need to point out that, if we're being prescriptivist about it, your first parenthetical should read he would have been rescued if his grammar were correct. :P
    – terdon
    Nov 21 at 14:37

The version I heard was that an English schoolmaster was the only one who heard the Scottish boy’s plea, said, “Very well then, have your way,” and walked off. The Oxford English Dictionary had another, where they acknowledged that people were now using enormous to mean big, rather than inordinate or abnormal, but they cheekily gave as their example a joke from the 1890s about a businessman who boasted of his “enormous profits” and had no idea how right he was!

If you mean a modern joke based on pedants pushing back against a word inverting its meaning, there’s this XKCD:

The chemistry experiment had me figuratively—and shortly after, literally—glued to my seat.

The webcomic 8-Bit Theater did a gag like this where the rules lawyer got out-lawyered about tautology (informally, vacuous circular reasoning, formally a statement that is necessarily true). Syllogism might have worked just as well.

You might make a nice one out of other contronyms such as sanction, cleave, or deceptively, but this works best when one meaning is pedantically correct but has become less common, such as inflammable, decimate, peruse or virtually.

  • What's the "enormous profits" joke? Nov 20 at 13:21
  • 1
    @theonlygusti A businessman would not normally admit that their large profits are inordinate -- it implies that they don't deserve them.
    – Barmar
    Nov 20 at 15:41
  • @theonlygusti This was also an era of class snobbery, where social risers would take lessons to learn the accent of the upper class and fit in. So academics mocking the boorish rich is part of it, but I think the upper-class Oxford dons are also sneering at the parvenu who might have money, but gives himself away as not being their social class by not speaking like them.
    – Davislor
    Nov 20 at 17:00
  • 1
    @theonlygusti By the way, most native speakers wouldn’t get the “enormous” joke either, or Shakespeare’s joke about the man who thinks he’s so smart and corrects others, but pronounces abhominable as abominable. These changes that pedants used to complain about happened, and the way people used those words before has been forgotten.
    – Davislor
    Nov 20 at 17:11
  • 1
    @Davislor I’m not familiar with the Shakespeare joke, but based on your description, I’ll admit that I don’t understand who’s the actual butt of the joke. Is it the man who thinks he’s smart and pronounced abominable the etymologically correct way (with no h), or is it the others who pronounce it with an h based on the folk etymology that it comes from ab homine ‘unhuman’? I guess the answer would depend on whether Shakespeare was aware that abhominable is folk etymology or not… Nov 21 at 11:58

The top answers do a good job on the historical distinction between "shall" and "will", so I won't restate everything. It boils down to "will" used to express intention when used in the first person, and "shall" indicated a command when used in the second or third person.

Therefore, a straightforward modern version would be:

I want to drown, and nobody should save me!

Of course, the sentence is no longer a joke. Most people would likely find this statement more alarming rather than amusing.


Modern version:

I'm going to drown and no one's going to save me.

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