Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The different meanings of shall

A client and I were discussing the edits of a document the other day and I suggested replacing the word “shall” with a different word. The client hesitated and said that that morning he and others on the management team were working on firm policy statements and the issue of the mandatory nature of “shall” came up. He said that his understanding is that you should use “shall” when you want to ensure there is no wiggle room.

I then explained, in fact, there’s a push to eliminate use of “shall” because using it does not necessarily imply something is mandatory. The client clearly was sceptical about my comment. I then went on to explain that this isn’t just limited to a few writing consultants recommend – it’s something folks who draft legislation and contracts are also behind. (Folks like Brian Garner, for example.)

That discussion reminded me that my clients don’t read or follow all the language news that I do. (They’re too busy keeping up-to-date with their own industry, of course.) So, after the meeting I sent my client a copy of a Writer’s Edge article I recently wrote about ambiguity. In that article I provided some examples of the different ways “shall” can be interpreted.

Since I suspect many readers of this blog may also think that using “shall” helps bullet-proof their writing, I thought I’d share examples of the different meanings for “shall” here:

·    Father said we shall go see Grandma on Sunday. Here it means we will go see Grandma on Sunday.
·    The provinces shall have the power to amend the law. Here it means the provinces may amend the law.