Resisting “Shall”

Published: 14 April 2015

Eliminating the word “shall” from technical documents is practically a mission for me. It’s in many of the documents I work with. Are you wondering why I have a problem with this word? Two reasons: it’s legalese, and it’s imprecise.

“Shall” is a common example of legalese. It sounds vaguely official, even though it carries no special weight. In fact, “shall” does not create any legal obligation, and courts have held that “shall” can mean “must,” “may,” and “is.”

“Shall” is also imprecise. It can mean either a requirement (“you must”) or a prediction (“you will”).

Unfortunately, “shall” is comfortable. Many people really like it. It feels safe because it sounds like a legal term. Regulated industries tend to use “shall” in their procedures and other technical documentation because they are heavily influenced by regulations, which still use “shall” liberally (although this is changing and the Federal Aviation Administration describes the reason why very well). “Shall” is also strongly established in software documentation.

I still don’t like it! What can I say, I am a Plain Language fan.

If your organization allows, you should replace “shall” with more precise words in technical documentation:

  • In most cases, writers use “shall” when the better word is “must.” “Must” is the correct word for stating a requirement. For example, “Employees must wear approved footwear with a safety toe.” Sometimes, you don’t have to say something like “must” at all. For example, in a document that is written for the employees who would be wearing the footwear, maybe you can just say “Wear approved footwear with a safety toe.”
  • Sometimes, writers use “shall” in wordy phrases such as “Employees shall be permitted to…” When expressing permission or an option, use the word “may” instead: “Employees may…”
  • To prohibit something, use “must not” instead of “shall not.”
  • To express preferred or recommended actions that are not necessarily required, use “should” instead of “shall.”

Replacing “shall” with a more precise word is a step toward improving your company’s technical documents.* Good luck!