ShallLawyers love to use the word shall. It seems more impressive somehow than a mere will. Certainly far more regal than going to. (Dueling examples: “I shall attend the inaugural ball.” “I’m going to go to Monster Truck World.” See?) And we know how lawyers like to sound impressive.

Actually, does anyone ever say shall? Not unless it’s spoken by a man in a bowtie and followed by the phrase “… I pour?”

No, it’s really only used in writing. Legal writing. Actually, bad legal writing.

You see, shall is the worst word ever.

There are over 1,300 reported cases interpreting it. The word can be used to mean must, may, will, can, is, is entitled to, and should. It is often used to mean different things in the same paragraph, or even the same sentence. This is because lawyers often cut and paste things from other documents without bothering to see how the word was previously being used.

My advice: Don’t use it at all. Use must or will or whatever you really mean. Shall is ambiguous and pompous. Shall is weak, and shows that you don’t care that much about words. And if you’re a lawyer, that means that you’re in the wrong line of work.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out this excellent article by top plain-English legal-writing professor Joseph Kimble, “A Modest Wish List for Legal Writing.” (The “shall” section is at number 11; the rest of the short article is great for other plain-English tips.) And check out this case from the Oregon Court of Appeals that explains how shall doesn’t necessarily mean shall.

Lawyers: ask yourselves — do you want to win your cases? If you worry more about sounding impressive and less about the meaning of the words, than you likely shan’t.

[By the way, the common but archaic second-person-singular form of shall is shalt, as in "Thou shalt ..." But even lawyers don't do that.]

originally published on The Client Revolution