We know that the proper and original meaning of "will" (verb) is, roughly, "want"; similarly, "shall" means "must, ought to".

But "will" and "shall" are normally used as the auxiliaries of the future tense.

(Please note that my question is not, or at least is not directly, about the use of "shall" and "will" in the future: it's about these two verbs in their original meanings of "must" and "want" respectively.)

So, here's my difficulty: if I say "I will go", or "I shall go", that will be understood by everybody as a future; what am I to do, if I mean to say "I want to go" or "I must go" respectively? (Well, you might answer, of course: just say that, "I want to go" and "I must go"! But suppose I want to use "will" and "shall".)

If, in speaking, I pronounced "will" or "shall" with emphasis, or, in writing, I wrote these two words in italics (or underlined them, etc.) — thus: "I will go", "I shall go" —, this would probably be understood as an energetic future, but still as a future (admittedly, in the case of "I will go" this energetic future would often be not very far in meaning from an energetic volition: as in "Whether you agree or not, I will go!" But, even then, this is not the same as "I want to go").

How can I use "shall" and "will" with the meaning of "must" and "want", and avoid every possible confusion with the future tense?

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    As a note, "shall" is very rare in modern English statements. It's more common in questions as a form of invitation "Shall we go to the dance on Friday?"
    – Catija
    Aug 5, 2016 at 21:35
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    @Bobsbosomfriend "Shall" has largely disappeared in modern usage, and "will" has largely lost its relationship to "want." Our language is impoverished by this, I think, but like it or not, today you shall use "must" and "want" if you will make your meaning clear. :) Aug 5, 2016 at 22:04
  • Thank you, everybody. P. E. Dant, though I'm not a native speaker, I'm under the impression that your two statements, and especially the first (" 'Shall' has largely disappeared in modern usage "), are too absolute. But, at any rate, let us change the question: when "shall" = "must" and "will" = "want" were in common use, how did people manage to distinguish them from the auxiliaries of the future? Aug 5, 2016 at 22:17
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    That's something better suited to our sister site English Language & Usage. We're focused here on helping users learn English. They focus on the historical use of words and how they were used. Knowing how "shall" and "will" were used in the past isn't of much use to learners now a days since they aren't used that way.
    – Catija
    Aug 5, 2016 at 22:22
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    @Bob'sbosomfriend Now you're in ELU territory! See this link or ask the above question there. Aug 5, 2016 at 22:22

5 Answers 5


I think you could simplify it down to this:

  1. 'Want' is desire, and is used to express desire of some type. 'Will' has not lost its relationship to 'want,' as 'will' still has the context of "volition" or more simply, "will" (the two are synonyms). It however is not the same context as "do as what you are willing," in which 'willing' means something like "what you'd be comfortable doing, reasonably." It is not a want.
  2. 'Shall' is closer to 'will.' It implies a lot of volition, more so than 'will,' which is conditional. It implies duty, just as 'must' does, but if taken in a modern context, 'must' is more informal and applies to a more flexible range of time.

If you need an example of 'will' in the more archaic context, here's one.

  • My test is always to listen. Really, how often does the deli lady ask: "Shall I wrap that up for you?" And the average customer, if asked that question by the deli lady, would look puzzled and reply: "Yeah, I guess you will." At least in NAmE (excepting perhaps among a small population of academics) shall implies no volition at all, and is increasingly thought of and used, if ever, only as a peculiar substitute for will, which, instead of urging, merely moves the action into the future. Aug 6, 2016 at 4:03

How can I use "shall" and "will" with the meaning of "must" and "want", and avoid every possible confusion with the future tense?

In most contexts, you can't; that's not what those words mean any more. There are a few similar uses which are still current:

  • Shall does mean must sometimes in the very conservative legal dialect; and its past-tense form should is often in both present- and past-tense contexts with the oldest recorded sense, which is not must but owed, ought (You really should read Ulysses it's a great book).

  • Will may have the sense be willing to in the protasis of a conditional construction, and that sense will spill over to the apodosis (If you'll get the beer, I'll get chips); and the past-tense form would is still occasionally used in both present- and past-tense contexts with the archaic sense want, albeit mostly in fossilized expressions (Do what you will, I don't care).

In any case, even if you could employ these words in these senses, you could not eliminate future reference because both want and must entail futurity: the obligation and the desire are present at Reference Time, but the actualization of what you want or are obliged to do—the verb complement expressed with an infinitive—necessarily lies at some point after Reference Time.

And you cannot assume that "original" meaning implies "proper" meaning—that's what linguists call the etymological fallacy. Word meanings are not static, and there is no Golden Age of English which determined for all time what any word means.

  • Thank you very much. I was also thinking of such phrases as "Thou shalt not commit adultery": the language is archaiic, of course, but... Aug 5, 2016 at 23:58
  • @Bob'sbosomfriend Well, besides being an Early Modern English text that particular passage is of course both a fixed phrase and legal dialect! :) Aug 6, 2016 at 0:08
  • @Bob'sbosomfriend But of course, you are free to express yourself as you will! Aug 6, 2016 at 0:37
  • Also, "Will / Would you help me, please?", or "Will / Would you have a cup of tea?" Aug 6, 2016 at 3:03
  • @Bob'sbosomfriend Unfortunately, these would be perceived by a large majority of listeners merely as quaint ways to say, respectively: "Please help me" and "Can I get you a cuppa?" None of the sense of desire implicit in willan (or velle) remains. Will increasingly carries only the sense of an anticipated or predicted future. Although the dictionaries include such examples of the verb's erstwhile sense as "Will you be quiet!," the average listener, if asked what that question means, will respond: "It's a different way to tell me to be quiet." That's what I think, at least. Aug 6, 2016 at 3:42

Saying or writing "I will go" is very unlikely to be understood as "I want to go", or anything similar, regardless of any emphasis. The verb "will" is used as an auxiliary verb in modern English, and a such it does not carry the meaning of the noun "will".

You could say "I am willing to go" instead. This is a common and well-understood phrase.

I would not interpret "shall" as "must" as you suggest, except in legal or similar language, where it means something like "required in order to comply". "Shall" is not common in speech nowadays, and when it is used, it suggests a solemn promise or oath.

Note that the verb "want" also has a different "original" meaning, similar to "miss" or "lack". With that meaning, you can still find it as "wanting".

English verbs carry a lot of interesting history...

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    I like your answer here, but you overestimate the putative audience. If I said "I shall go to the bank," not one in a million would infer that I was promising to go there. They would wonder why I didn't just say "I will go to the bank." I do wish you were right, though, for all that it matters. Aug 5, 2016 at 22:33

"Shall" has largely disappeared in modern usage (except as a synonym of "will," sometimes employed by a NAmE writer or speaker who wishes to be perceived as "British") and "will" has largely lost its relationship to "want."

Like it or not, today you shall use "must" and "want" if you will make your meaning clear.

This has been discussed many times at ELU; see this link.


In the traditional use, shall in the first person (singular or plural) indicates volition or simple future, and in any other person it indicates necessity or enforcement (think legal contracts or prophecies).

Conversely, will in the first person (singular or plural) indicates strong determination, whereas in any other person, it indicates simple future.

Similarly, should in the first person traditionally indicates an inclination (I should like to think), whereas in any other person it indicates an obligation.

If you read Harry Potter, the character of Albus Dumbledore pretty much follows these traditional rules when it comes to using these auxiliary verbs.

In modern American English, you rarely ever use shall in the first person. Questions with "shall I?" might be an exception. (If you say I should, it more often than not has the same meaning as in any other person (an obligation or expectation)).

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    Thank you very much. My understanding was that the traditional rule is: "shall" in the first persons and "will" in the others = ordinary future (mere idea of futurity); "will" in the first persons and "shall" in the others = in addition to the idea of futurity, also a (strong) volition is expressed. § It seems to me that this second, volitional, future can obviously be explained by the original meanings of "shall" and "will": "I will go!" = (originally) "I (strongly) want to go!"; "No, you shall stay here!" = (originally) "You must stay here!" = "I (strongly) want you to stay here!" Aug 6, 2016 at 12:02
  • (On second thoughts, I prefer to call it the volitive future: volitional sounds heavily pedantic.) Aug 6, 2016 at 12:21
  • @Bob'sbosomfriend Nice examples. Your understanding of it is correct. I once had this old British book that laid it down pretty much like I have. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the book. To put it shortly, traditionally, shall is kind of WEAK (as in, mere idea of futurity, as you put it) in the first person and STRONG (strong feelings, obligations, prophecies, etc.) everywhere else, and with will, it's the opposite. Aug 6, 2016 at 12:25

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