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Off topic: Are we abusing the word "shall"?
Thread poster: ViktoriaG

ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 23:40
English to French
+ ...
Feb 6, 2007

Dear colleagues,

Sorry if I come to you again with one of those existentialist questions you are accustomed to see posted by me from time to time, but I just had to ask.

Is it because too many translators specialize in legal translation and they get the sense of the word mixed up because they use it so often? Is it because the quality of plain English is worsening across the globe to a point where even translators can't use words correctly?

Why do people abuse the word "shall" in the forum? This word does NOT share a meaning with the word "should" - its meaning is being obliged to, being forced to, not having any other choice. But when a user asks "Shall I go to school now or travel the world instead?", I can't help but wonder... Although there are cases when the use of this word is correct and justified, I feel that there is a tendency to replace the word "should" by "shall" for no apparent reason.

Is it just me, or people in general really don't know what this word really means?

[Edited at 2007-02-06 11:24]


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Charlie Bavington  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:40
French to English
Have a look in the OED Feb 6, 2007

Viktoria Gimbe wrote:

"Shall I go to school now or travel the world instead?", I can't help but wonder...


OED - point 7:
"In special interrogative uses related to (usage ... 6 - expressing the speakers determination to bring about...some action or event...), in the first person, where the expected answer is a command, direction, ADVICE or permission..."


Is it just me, or people in general really don't know what this word really means?


I shouldn't think it's just you, no, but you do appear to be in the category of those who don't know what the word means

Of course, you're in Canada, and usage may be different there, but the usage of "shall" to which you appear to object is perfectly valid where I come from


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ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 23:40
English to French
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
It is valid but... Feb 6, 2007

I was not saying that widespread usage is wrong, but rather that people use the word as if there was nothing else. The way it's being used, it makes the use of the word "should" utterly vain. I just find that it looks like a fashionable word - but it takes up too much room.

Also, there are many sentences used here such as "I shall take note of this website". If we are talking about advice, as you suggest, then uses such as this one would be wrong, because it doesn't make sense to give advice to oneself.

I think the sense of the word "shall" is much closer to "must" than it is to "should" - but it seems that people use it the other way around, as an alternative to "should".


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Michael Edginton
Local time: 04:40
Spanish to English
+ ...
Legalese Feb 6, 2007

I am no expert on the matter but I think a lot of the confusion arises because in English we have a stange way of constructing the future tense, will "shall" and "will", thus:

I shall We shall
You will You will
He/She/It will They will

But if you swap "will" for "shall" you convey the meaning of the imperative. "Shall" is used with this meaning chiefly in legal circles and also, occasionally, in public notices.

This difference could stem from the dawn of time and the root meaning of the word "will" (to want to) but this is conjecture becauseI have not done any research on this.

As an aside, I wonder how many other languages use the future tense as a kind of order.

With regard to the differences between "shall" and "should", I think "shall" is an order whereas "should" is advice (and sometimes a veiled order).

Hope this helps,

Kind regards,

Mike Edginton


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ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 23:40
English to French
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
My feelings exactly Feb 6, 2007


Michael Edginton wrote:

With regard to the differences between "shall" and "should", I think "shall" is an order whereas "should" is advice (and sometimes a veiled order).



This is how I perceive them, too. And it is only normal that, in light of this point of view, I find that we use "shall" a little too much. I think that in many cases, "should" is more appropriate AND sounds more natural also. Not in all cases, but in many cases where "shall" was used, I would prefer "should".

Does it all come down to personal taste, then? Can some Canucks comment to see if my perception may in some way be dictated by local culture?


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Parrot  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 05:40
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Look again Feb 6, 2007

Michael Edginton wrote:

As an aside, I wonder how many other languages use the future tense as a kind of order.


AFAIK, the Ten Commandments come in this specific future. What language family does that come from?

(Of course, engineers had to appropriate it in their specs...)


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ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 23:40
English to French
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
In French, we use future tense to give orders - a lot Feb 6, 2007

We use the French equivalent of "will" to give orders. The order has the same impact, it is just not as explicit as saying "I am ordering you to...", so it comes off as a milder equivalent. Example: "Tu vas faire la vaisselle, tout de suite!" (You will wash the dishes, right away!).

I think we even use this, here in Quebec, more often than other forms of giving orders. It seems to be a standard with children when parents want to display authority.

On another note, I wouldn't be too hasty to draw conclusions based on the Holy Book. It is so old and has such an extensive curriculum of translators, it has been worked on for so long, maybe even perverted, that we can't take it as pure science. Who's to say it was first published in English? Who's to say the first English version was not translated by someone who was not nearly native in English? Do you realize that there is a separate discipline in translation called 'bible translation'? Makes you wonder...

[Edited at 2007-02-06 13:20]


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Charlie Bavington  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:40
French to English
Thought you were just talking about questions Feb 6, 2007

And I confess, lest there be any confusion, that while I don't object to "shall I...?", my natural inclination when asking questions of that type is definitely "should I...?" So I think that ultimately, we probably more or less agree there

Viktoria Gimbe wrote:

Also, there are many sentences used here such as "I shall take note of this website". If we are talking about advice, as you suggest, then uses such as this one would be wrong, because it doesn't make sense to give advice to oneself.


This made me think of interesting point that hadn't occurred to me before.
Compare the questions:
a) Shall I take note of this website?
b) Will I take note of this website?

Am I alone in thinking that the first is asking advice/guidance, = to "should I...?", whereas the second has a rhetorical air to it, inasmuch as I would expect such a question to be followed by a statement such as "no, I won't, because it's run by a cat-lover" or "yes I will because I like the pretty green colour"?

If you are moving away from pure interrogatives, I just don't think I've got time today to discuss the degrees of obligation/necessity inherent in the I must/have to/ought to/should/need to options open to the English-speaker, fascinating tho' it undoubtedly is


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RobinB  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 05:40
German to English
Not abusing, but certainly misunderstanding Feb 6, 2007

Viktoria Gimbe wrote:
Is it just me, or people in general really don't know what this word really means?


I wonder which category you belong to, if you'll pardon the dangling preposition.

One of the means of shall is indeed as a 'verb of authority', where it conveys a requirement. This is used typically in standards. The language of standards uses 'should' to mean a recommendation.

But you're confusing LSP with general language, aren't you? What about the standard use of 'shall' as a future auxiliary?

- I shall be in town tomorrow. Can we meet up?
- I suppose I shall have an opportunity to review this paper soon.

And what about what's probably the most famous use of 'shall' in the English language outside the Bible? (note also the correct use of 'to'):

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

So where's the problem?

[Edited at 2007-02-06 14:03]


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Victor Dewsbery  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 05:40
German to English
+ ...
Future, legalese, history and modern usage Feb 6, 2007

Michael Edginton wrote:
... in English we have a stange way of constructing the future tense, will "shall" and "will", thus:
I shall We shall
You will You will
He/She/It will They will
But if you swap "will" for "shall" you convey the meaning of the imperative. "Shall" is used with this meaning chiefly in legal circles and also, occasionally, in public notices.


For the record, I don't regard "shall" as normal future usage. I would differ from Michael's declension of the future and simply say "I will (finish this translation some day)".
I regard the use of "shall" for a normal future tense sentence as antiquated. There may be some brands of English where it is still in modern use, but not British English as I speak and write it.

Nor do I regard "shall" as a command form. I would simply say "Clear the table", not "you shall clear the table", which I would again regard as antiquated (in my brand of English).

In legalese (e.g. contracts), "shall" is used to express obligations. It is not a future tense (although the obligations usually apply to actions that lie in the future).

References to the Bible and Shakespeare are historical. It would be clearer to translate "Do not steal" rather than "Thou shalt not steal" or even "You shall not steal".

As for usage on the ProZ forums, I would actually be far more tolerant.
Many people who write in English here are not native speakers, and I admire them for writing so well in a foreign language (and for many of them, it is not even a working language). If I had to post in my third language (French), I would make many more mistakes and be far more limited in what I could communicate. So I agree, Viktoria, that the word is sometimes used wrongly (along with other errors), but I don't see a problem in people making mistakes for the sake of communicating in another language.


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Amy Duncan  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 02:40
Portuguese to English
+ ...
About the Bible... Feb 6, 2007

Viktoria Gimbe wrote:

On another note, I wouldn't be too hasty to draw conclusions based on the Holy Book. It is so old and has such an extensive curriculum of translators, it has been worked on for so long, maybe even perverted, that we can't take it as pure science. Who's to say it was first published in English? Who's to say the first English version was not translated by someone who was not nearly native in English? Do you realize that there is a separate discipline in translation called 'bible translation'? Makes you wonder...

[Edited at 2007-02-06 13:20]


You certainly have a point, Viktoria. I was reading the Book of Acts yesterday from a New Testament that has the King James version on one column and a Portuguese translation on the other (João Ferreira de Almeida verson). I kept running across things in the King James version that really made very little sense in English (wish I could give an example, but I'm already on chapter 23 and don't have time to look back over everything). Suffice it to say, even though I am a native speaker of English, I had to keep looking at the Portuguese translation to figure out what certain passages meant!

Amy


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katsy
Local time: 05:40
English to French
+ ...
modern grammar books Feb 6, 2007

I am really interested in all this discussion, though I have no answer to the original question, 'are we abusing 'shall'. I would suggest a look in a French book dealing with English grammar (but a modern one) I can suggest a title if anyone's interested but don't want it to be thought that it's veiled publicity, it isn't. As a new user I don't want to break any rules! I just think that today's French specialists in English linguistics are doing a brilliant job! (no, I'm not one!!)
My working languages are English and French, and for my work I've had to brush up my English grammar (to teach it) - not in a normative way, but in order to be able to explain what English speakers use and why. The problem with modal auxiliaries (may, might, shall should etc....) is that they may differ in meaning according to whether they're used in the interrogative, affirmative or negative forms, and even whether the subject word is I, he, they etc. Hence ... I will attempt to propose explanations for 'shall'. I'd be grateful for feedback. The modal aux. then, gives an idea of how the speaker (not necessarily the subject of the sentence) envisages the realisation of the verb.
Shall I open the window? - I am making an offer, proposing help.
( contrast: should I open the window = is it desirable/advisable to open the window)
I shall return (!) = future, but adds an element of determination of the speaker (to contrast with 'I will return' - which has less determination and is more a simple projection into the future)
This 'determination' in shall is perhaps stronger today than previously when we were told at school that you said 'I shall write to Granny', but 'you will write to Granny', i.e. that it was 'incorrect' to use 'will' in the 1st person for the future - even if everyone said 'I will write to Granny'). But of course this determination, imposition of a will (sorry!!) is in fact a throwback to the old 'shall' in 'Thou shalt not kill', which is an order, not a future.
In more old-fashioned texts, you may still find things like 'You shall not go out!' 'All pupils shall wear their uniforms' i.e. more or less equivalent to 'must'.
I could go on, but am afraid of boring everyone's socks off! Hope this contribution is helpful. If I'm allowed to recommend a book tell me - otherwise contact me otherwise if you're interested.



[Edited at 2007-02-06 18:56]


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ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 23:40
English to French
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Very interesting, katsy! Feb 6, 2007

Your post is very interesting and there is something for each of us here to ponder. In fact, there are too many things to ponder - that was a post rather rich in information! So, I cannot react to it because I first have to digest it

However, please do tell us about the book you were referring to. You are allowed to share your references on ProZ - in fact, the only thing you are not allowed to do in general as far as non-divulgation goes is names of outsourcers or translators you've worked with, when you want to discuss their ridiculously low rates or unprofessional behaviours.

The forum rules on this site are very simple, I suggest you take a minute (it really only takes a minute) to read them: http://www.proz.com/siterules/forum

I am anxious to discover what book you are afraid to recommend

I am editing this message - katsy's post just disappeared. Why? Please, post again, katsy! I really liked it and was going to read it again...

[Edited at 2007-02-06 19:16]


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katsy
Local time: 05:40
English to French
+ ...
book title Feb 6, 2007

[quote]Viktoria Gimbe wrote:

I am anxious to discover what book you are afraid to recommend

Sorry Viktoria, I decided to edit and realised I was going to go into 'will', which is another topic altogether. That's why my post disappeared for a few minutes.!
Thanks for the link to the site rules which I will (not shall!!) look at.
Here is the title of the book. I don't know if it's available in Canada. "La Grammaire de l'anglais", authors = Lallement Brion, Pierret, Hachette, collection Hachette Education.
Chapter 19 is about 'L'avenir et l'hypothèse', and covers shall and will. Chapter 20 deals with modals in general.
Re-reading all the posts after posting my own comments, I felt that in fact what I said just summed up what most people have been saying, but in more synthetic form. Their 'gut feelings' are in fact very accurate. What I appreciate about the French specialists in English linguistics is that they just describe and analyse what people use, and deduce the meaning of all we English-speakers actually say. They don't say 'this is right and that is wrong', they just describe what IS. And I am pretty convinced by their deductions. We English 'native speakers' are also influenced by what we were told was 'right' and 'correct' usage, whereas analysis of a language is to see what is said, how it is said, and what it means.
I am in no way a linguist (in the senses of studying linguistics) but my job brings me regularly into contact with them and they impress me!!
On 'shall' , I've been wondering if you feel there is too much use of it, because the translations for which help is asked for are so often very formal texts (eg legal texts) which keep the 'old' sense of shall, imposing an obligation. It is indeed not so much used in everyday conversation, and to come back to your original point, 'I shall take note of the website' - I wonder if it is not an English-speaker (and no criticism is meant, I could easily do the same!) who is just trying to be very 'correct'.
Thanks for being so encouraging. I shall (ha! caught myself at it!!) follow developments on this topic!
All the best
Katsy


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Charlie Bavington  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:40
French to English
Interesting distinction, but is it useful? Feb 6, 2007

katsy wrote:

Shall I open the window? - I am making an offer, proposing help.
( contrast: should I open the window = is it desirable/advisable to open the window)


You'll notice I'm just gonna stick to the interrogative aspect again

This is undoubtedly a useful theoretical distinction, and I can see the appeal, but I would like to qualify it. (I'm just speaking as a layman, in terms of linguistic study.) The plain fact is, I just don't think the majority of English-speakers bother to make this distinction, and I will qualify that still further.

Some of those who say "shall I open the window?" are perhaps aware (implicitly 'cos they just feel it, or explicitly 'cos they've learned it) of a difference from "should" and are intending to convey exactly what you say.

However, that does not, in my view, mean that those who say "should I open the window" exclusively intend the desirable/advisable meaning; I think the majority of people these days will say "should I open the window" as a universal catchall question intended purely to sollicit opinion as to whether the window is to be opened or not.

And let's face it, in practical terms, the net result is that the window will either be opened or will remain closed, and this will happen either with or without the approval of the person(s) being asked, the rationale behind the question makes not a jot of difference. The answer to the question surely will not differ depending on whether it was asked using "shall" or "should"? It would be interesting to see if anyone could compose a question which could genuinely give rise to different answers under identical circumstances by replacing "should " with "shall", or vice versa. Or, put another way, is this actually a useful distinction to make? I would suggest that ultimately, it is not.

However, your distinction most certainly does shed light on why some speakers, such as Viktoria, would find a construction such as "shall I take a gap year or get a job?" odd, since if this is interpreted with an "offer/proposing help" slant, then it clearly sounds strange.

Edited to say I'm speaking from a southern English viewpoint.

[Edited at 2007-02-06 22:52]


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