Shall or will in contracts?

You shall go to the ball, Cinderella!

This posting is prompted by seeing this recent article, on a non-legal, grammar blog, about the distinction between shall and will, including the use of these words in contractual obligations.

To focus the discussion, here are some examples of contractual obligations:

  1. The Consultant shall provide the Services to the Client.
  2. The Consultant will provide the Services to the Client.
  3. The Consultant [undertakes / agrees] to provide the Services to the Client.
  4. The Consultant covenants to provide the Services to the Client.

Conventional practice among most English commercial solicitors is to use version 1 above.  Shall is almost always used (in preference to will) to express contractual obligations in the template agreements of City [of London] law firms.

Sometimes, variants on version 3 appear, but they take up more words than version 1 and add nothing to the legal effect under English law, so should probably be avoided as unnecessary verbiage.

In real property transactions in England and Wales, covenant has a special meaning, in that a negative covenant given by a purchaser of land may be binding on subsequent owners of the land.   This is an exception to the usual principle that contractual obligations bind only the parties to the contract.  In ordinary commercial contracts, contractual obligations, however described, are only binding on the parties to the contract.

Technically, it seems that the term covenant is an undertaking given in a contract under seal (nowadays, a contract made as a deed).  Conveyances of land must be made as deeds, so one can see why obligations in relation to the land, as described above, have been called covenants.

Covenants are sometimes encountered in ordinary commercial contracts.  Most typically, non-compete obligations, eg in employment contracts, are described as covenants.  Our understanding is that the use of the term covenant in this situation adds nothing to the legal effect, but does make the obligation sound more imposing.

Coming back to shall and will, the article referred to above mentions briefly a distinction that appeared in English language school books until a few generations ago:

(a) for the future tense, it is or was considered correct to say, I shall, you will, he/she/it will, and

(b) for the emphatic mood the words are reversed and it goes I will, you shall, he/she/it shall.

Contracts are usually written in the third person singular, as in our four examples above, hence the correct word to use is shall.  As far as we know, the use of shall in English contracts is based entirely on the application of this rule of grammar.

As the article mentioned above indicates, this is a rule devised by eighteenth century grammarians, and may be considered unnecessarily rigid in the 21st century, when linguistics academics often find prescriptivist rules abhorrent (search for prescriptivist poppycock on that site).  In any event, we find it difficult to believe that any sane English judge would interpret a contract wrongly based on the drafter’s choice of shall or will.

IP Draughts has discussed the use of shall and will in contracts with hundreds of lawyers who have attended his contract drafting courses over the last decade or so.  In the course of these discussions, he has learnt that some lawyers, particularly in the USA, are taught to use the word will when drafting contracts.

This teaching is far from universal in the USA.  The leading US author on contract drafting, Ken Adams, in his book a Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, recommends the use of the word shall for contractual obligations, but only for contractual obligations.  Thus, if a contract refers to something happening in the future but is not a contractual obligation, will may be the appropriate word to use.

This approach may be contrasted with that of the respected US legal author, Bryan Garner, who in his book Legal Writing in Plain English prefers to use the word will.  The title of section 35 of that book may give a clue to Garner’s views: “Delete every shall“.

The approach in US contracts may be affected by the fact that the word shall seems to be regarded as old-fashioned and rarely encountered in everyday speech in the USA.  This may lead one to avoid the word altogether, as Bryan Garner recommends, or to use it only in a specific, technical sense for contractual obligations, as Ken Adams recommends.  For what it is worth, this English lawyer prefers the latter approach.

I must buy some more perfume

Another alternative is to eschew both shall and will and use a neutral word such as must.  IP Draughts has seen must in a small number of contracts, but it hasn’t really caught on.  For some, the word may seem too abrupt and demanding, although this is not a view that IP Draughts shares.

4 Comments

Filed under Contract drafting

4 responses to “Shall or will in contracts?

  1. Pingback: Revisiting Use of “Shall” in Contract Drafting « Adams on Contract Drafting

  2. “And have they fixed the where and when?
    And shall Trelawny die?
    Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
    Will know the reason why!”
    “The Song of the Western Men” – Robert Hawker – Unofficial Cornish National Anthem.
    “Shall”? “Will”? Go figure!

  3. Pingback: Koncision » Revisiting Use of “Shall” in Contract Drafting

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