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Historical change: the modal verb "shall"


Pre-Task Discussion

Consider the modal verb shall for a moment... Do you think it is in use as much in modern-day English as it was in the early 1960s?

In which text categories of LOB/FLOB etc. would you expect shall to occur most often?

What kind of subjects (I, you, he/she, etc.) do you expect to occur most often with shall?


A. Overall frequencies of shall in the LOB and FLOB corpora

Before you start, follow this link and make a copy of the table - either print it out or copy-and-paste it over to a word processor. Then you can use it to keep a note of your results.

Now let's search for the modal auxiliary verb shall by using Concord in WordSmith.

  1. Select [File] - [Choose texts], find the flob folder, and select All to choose all the FLOB corpus.
  2. Do a concordance for shall, and fill in the number of entries in the first empty box in the table
  3. Repeat the above for shan't and shall/shan't (In WordSmith searches, / means "or")
  4. Work out the difference in frequency. This is just:

    difference in frequency = FLOB frequency - LOB frequency

  5. Use the computer's calculator to work out the percentage change in frequency for shall/shan't only:

    [ Start - Programs - Accessories - Calculator ]

    change % = difference in frequency LOB frequency x 100

Do the results match your predictions?

Don't close WordSmith down yet: you will need it for the next exercise.

B. Frequency of shall by text category

You can use the "distribution plot" function to check this - click on
This shows several columns:

  • File = the text category
  • Words = the number of words in that category
  • Hits = how many times shall occurs
  • per 1,000 = how many times shall occurs per thousand words
  • Plot = shows where the word shall appears, i.e. its distribution, across the text category

Can you see any patterns in the distribution of shall in the different categories? e.g. which category has the highest concentration per 1,000? Which has the most even spread of "hits"?

C. Collocates of shall

Here we will investigate which words co-occur or "collocate" with shall most often. We will be looking at words one to the left of shall, because this is usually the subject of the verb.

First, get a new results table by following this link.

  1. To go back to your concordance lines for shall in FLOB: in the Concord window, click on Window at the top and select the line saying SHALLxSHAN'T: 200 entries.
  2. Click on the Resort button , then in the Main Sort box go down and pick 1L. This means you tell WordSmith to re-arrange the concordance lines alphabetically on the first word to the left of shall.
  3. Browse through the concordance lines. You will see the words before shall grouped together in red.
  4. Click on the Show collocates button and then again on Resort and choose 1L again.
  5. Find the pronouns in the 1L position and note the frequency in the results table.
  6. Work out the FLOB % for each pronoun in the table.

    The formula is: frequency of pronoun total freq of shall in FLOB x 100

  7. Fill in the percentage change using this formula: FLOB % - LOB %

Can you see any patterns in your results table?