LINGUIST List 4.787

Sat 02 Oct 1993

Disc: Pronouns, Shall

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. David Denison, Frozen pronouns
  2. , Re: 4.765 Shall

Message 1: Frozen pronouns

Date: 29 Sep 93 12:20:12 BST
From: David Denison <>
Subject: Frozen pronouns

In response to Jeff Bishop's observations on
(1) Me and Bob went bowling ...
(2) ... to Bob and I.
I again have some preliminary observations in draft form. I too have
always assumed that (2) was a hypercorrection based on
examples like (1) and the familiar pre-/proscriptive correction "Don't
say _Me and Bob_, say _Bob and I_".
 Two problems. Examples like (2) are found in Shakespeare, etc,
long before there was a tradition of linguistic prescription, at
least in surviving written form. If no prescription, why
hypercorrection? And in any case, why should (1) occur in the first
 The answer to the latter may lie in the longterm tendency in
English for objective pronouns to become the unmarked form for all
case-marked pronouns in nearly every syntactic context: direct
object, indirect object, predicative complement (recent-ish,
supplants subjective form), subject of infinitive, subject of _- ing_
form (recent, supplants possessive form), independent use, etc,
leaving just subject-of-finite-verb as the distribution of subjective
forms. [In the case of 2nd-person pronouns - and please note I'm
discussing case, not number, so I don't have to mention _y'all_ -
there is no distinct subjective form any more anyway, which may have
helped to encourage (1).] So maybe (1) suggests that this last
context is being further reduced to subject-of-finite-verb-AND-
forming-whole-NP. Perhaps it's worth comparing forms like
(3) ?Unlucky him/her has to teach a huge class.
(4) *Unlucky he/she has to teach a huge class.
(5) Him/her over there is who you need to see.
(6) *He/she over there is who you need to see.
where (it just occurs to me) a pronoun when modified seems to
be better in the unmarked/objective form than in the subjective.
 Hmmm, this thinking aloud and firing it off to LINGUIST is a bit
unsettling. I've just tried putting _I/me_ into (3-4), and though
the case forms seem to fit OK, what happens to person on the verb? I
THINK I want to say
(7) ?Unlucky me has to teach a whole class.
with 3rd-person verb, which is interesting ... . Better quit now
while I'm ahead.
 David Denison

(Dr) David Denison
Dept of English Language & Literature
Univ. of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL,
tel. +44 61-275 3154
fax. +44 61-275 3256
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Message 2: Re: 4.765 Shall

Date: Thu, 30 Sep 1993 16:44:34 Re: 4.765 Shall
From: <>
Subject: Re: 4.765 Shall

Since no seems to have said it yet, perhaps I'll have to (note ambiguity
of contracted auxiliary).

The future usage of _will_ and _shall_ in English (and, to some extent,
in other Germanic languages) is secondary. They are originally
auxiliaries of volition and obligation respectively; cf. German _wollen_
'want to' and _sollen_ 'be supposed to'. Like other English modals, the
preterite can, and usually does, have rather conditional/subjunctive
meaning. And what this discussion seems to have overlooked is that the
original meanings of the set are very much alive, particularly in the
case of _shall/should_.

Consider the following. A patient is in the hospital, miserable, not
knowing what ails him. Finally the physician arrives to give the
diagnosis. Anxious, the patient asks:

(1) Oh, doctor, shall I die?

To which the medico replies:

(2) Perhaps. Will I give you some medication?

Sentence (1) is grossly inappropriate -- but why? Surely the patient
was as deferential as if he had said _will_. Deference has nothing to
do with it. Rather, by using _shall_ in a 1st-person question, we
obligate ourselves to do the interlocutor's bidding. That is, the
patient will live or die at the pleasure of the physician. Total
deference, I should say! (And I would too.) Conversely, 1st-person
questions with _will_ usually express mere futurity, with some
possibility of volition in (2) and similar sentences.

Other instances of _shall_ are quite rare for me and many, perhaps most,
English speakers. Mostly it has been replaced by _should_ -- but like
the other modal subjunctives, _should_ is often too squishy. Consider
the Ten Commandments:

(3) a. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
 b. You shouldn't commit adultery.
 c. You mustn't commit adultery.

Plainly, _must_ is now dominates in speech and, less overwhelmingly, in

Though _will_ is now sometimes used in by-laws in place of _shall_, this
is not always possible and is usually a poor substitute. (4) is not a
commandment, but a prediction -- sadly, erroneous in too many cases.

(4) You will not commit adultery.

So I foresee an assured, though limited, continued existence of _shall_,
since in certain locutions it is quite useful.

 --Leo Connolly
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