When you want to talk about the future in English, there are various forms you can use, including the present continuous, ‘be going to’, ‘will’ and ‘shall’. ‘Will’ and ‘shall’ are in many ways the easiest to use because of their simple structure, but they can also be easy to confuse. So what is the difference and when should you use them? Read on to find out.
The most basic and common form used to express the future is ‘will’. The structure of ‘will’ is easy because it is the same for all subjects and you don’t need to change anything about the verb.
To make the negative form we add ‘not’:
To make the question form we invert the subject and ‘will’:
We use ‘will’ for the following situations:
a) to describe the future
- We’ll be at the hotel until 8pm.
- The trains will be late today because of the bad weather.
- How long will you stay in Hong Kong?
- He’ll send us the report when he has all the data.
b) to make a prediction
- The world population will grow a lot in the next 50 years.
- I think I’ll stay in this company until I retire.
- She doesn’t think she’ll pass the exam.
- Who do you think will win the tournament?
c) to express a decision made at the moment of speaking
- I’ll have the vegetable soup please.
- (The phone rings) I’ll answer it.
- So that’s the plan – we’ll check the sales figures and you check the expenses.
- Jean’s over there. I’ll just go and say ‘hello’ before we leave.
d) to make a request
- Will you bring some more water please?
- Will you come to the appointment with me?
- Will you be quiet please? I’m trying to make an important phone call.
- You’ll give me a hand with dinner, won’t you?
e) to make promises and offers
- I’ll call you when I get home.
- She’ll help you finish the work, don’t worry.
- We’ll send you the goods as soon as possible.
- Lee and Kim will show you around the city.
f) to describe the consequence of a conditional phrase:
- If it rains, I’ll take my umbrella,
- If they win the next match, they’ll go through to the final.
- Will she come to dinner if I invite her?
- We won’t mind if you arrive late.
In the past, ‘shall’ was often used as an alternative to ‘will’, and you can find many examples of ‘shall’ in famous literary works. But in modern English we usually prefer ‘will’ for affirmative and negative sentences. However, we still use ‘shall’ to form questions with ‘I’ and ‘we’ in questions, especially in British English.
We form sentences with ‘shall’ in the same way as we do with ‘will’.
The negative form is created by adding ‘not’:
(The contraction form, ‘shan’t’, is something we generally use in spoken English but rarely in its written form.
We make the question by inverting the subject and ‘shall’. Here is the question form for all the subjects, though we only normally use ‘shall’ in questions with I and we:
We use ‘shall’ in the following ways:
a) to make offers using I/we
- Shall I make some lunch?
- Shall we help you with your bags?
- Where shall I drop you off? Outside your office?
- Shall I water your plants while you’re away?
b) to make suggestions using I/we
- Shall we go to the park later?
- Shall we have something to eat?
- Who shall we invite to the party?
- What shall we do after we’ve watched the film?
c) to express formal obligations
- Applicants shall provide evidence of their qualifications.
- Guests shall not remove anything from the rooms.
- The tenant shall pay the agreed amount on the first day of every month.
- The accused shall appear in court again on 26th October.
d) to make a promise
- I shall never forget the help you gave me.
- I shan’t be late.
- We shall do everything we can to solve the problem.
- He shan’t be long. Do have a seat while you wait.
e) to describe the future very formally
- We shall overcome this difficult moment.
- The tests shall be carried out by an independent body.
- Mr Lopez shall begin his talk at 2:30pm.
- Access to the city center shall be limited today due to the marathon.
Will or Shall?
As a general rule, use ‘will’ for affirmative and negative sentences about the future. Use ‘will’ for requests too. If you want to make an offer or suggestion with I/we, use ‘shall’ in the question form. For very formal statements, especially to describe obligations, use ‘shall’.
Now you’ve seen the differences between ‘will’ and ‘shall’, you’re ready to use them. Get some practice by trying our quizzes. And also try to use ‘will’ and ‘shall’ as much as you can in the coming days and weeks when you speak because this will help consolidate what you have learned.