The Internet brings a note from John Schedel of Buffalo, N.Y. The word “shall,” he suggests, “is a prime candidate for linguistic euthanasia. The distinction between ‘shall’ and its close cousin ‘will’ is neither widely nor completely understood. In addition, the use of ‘shall’ is rare, and it is often seen as affected …”

What about it, you language lovers? Except for a few specialized uses, is it time to banish “shall” to the graveyard of American English? John B. Bremner, a beloved (and terrifying) professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, asserted in 1985 that except in England “the distinction between ‘shall’ and ‘will’ is moribund.”

That distinction has been getting moribunder all the time. Except in the rarefied realms of parliamentary speech and legislative drafting, the employment of “shall” has gone the way of thee, thou and Poe’s loquacious raven. It lingers on in such constructions as “Shall we go?” and its corollary, “Shall we dance?” The last public figure to employ “shall” assertively was Gen. Douglas MacArthur as he left the Philippines in 1942. “I shall return,” said the general. And he did return.

Two years earlier, Winston Churchill spoke to the House of Commons: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end … We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Every “shall” worked for Winston.

Unlike Churchill, wordsmith Bryan Garner is ready to surrender. He says of “shall,” if the distinction isn’t real, “there’s simply no reason to hold on to it.” My own inclination is to put dear old “shall” tenderly on a shelf. When another Churchill comes along, we can take it down.

Other candidates for linguistic euthanasia are “woken” and its first cousin, “awoken.” Carol Maxey of Las Vegas writes to say that the 14th-century verbals grate upon her ear. She would abolish “they were woken” in favor of “they were awakened.”

You will hear no objection from this corner. Every authority on English usage – every authority in my library, anyhow – has looked at this knotted ball of yarn and decided to give up knitting. R.W. Burchfield, for example, says the clutter of awake, awaken, wake, waken, woken is “a philological nightmare.” Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the verbs “have not yet settled down from a long and tangled history.” Garner says the various forms “are perhaps the most vexing in the language.” In an uncharacteristically mild moment, the venerable Henry Fowler said only that “distinctions between the forms is difficult.”

My own advice, having canvassed the experts, is for writers to rely upon their ears. Sometimes we will want three syllables and a long “a,” as in “awakened,” sometimes two syllables and a long “o,” as in “awoke.” Several years ago I cited the example of Ramona. In the once-popular song, she “awoke to find her lover gone.” The cad had vamoosed before the sun came up. The lyrics would have lost their cadence if the dear girl had wakened, awakened, or rolled over.

We read not only with our eyes but also with our inner ears. The meaning of words must always be a writer’s first concern. After that comes cadence. Does a sentence sound right? If so, it may be factually mistaken or tastefully regrettable – the sentence may be libelous or contumacious or poorly spelled – but at least it will fall trippingly from the tongue.

James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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